The In-Between of Environmental Crisis

David Beckam

Green Green Green
Gillian Osborne
Nightboat Books, $17.95 (paper)

The Porch: Meditations on the Edge of Nature
Charlie Hailey
University of Chicago Press, $22.50 (cloth)

Environmental upheaval has become all too familiar. Storms are harsher, water and electricity supplies falter, fires darken the sky for months. The planet is transitioning toward a new state, suspending us between technological fixes and planetary forces, present needs and future threats.

These books represent a cultural rite of passage in a changing world—and a literary approach that will doubtless develop as we wade further into environmental disruption.

In anthropology, the condition of being between is called liminality. Liminality, rooted in the Latin limen meaning “threshold” or “sill,” is an ancient experience but a modern concept. It emerged in anthropology of religion at the turn of the twentieth century, a moment when many societies seemed poised on the brink of transformation. “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” Virginia Woolf famously remarked. “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born” wrote William Butler Yeats of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising.

In folklorist Arnold van Gennep’s Les rites de passage (The Rites of Passage), published in 1909, van Gennep divides religious rituals of transformation into three stages: pre-liminal rites mark separation from a previous state or world; liminal rites accompany a precarious state of transition; post-liminal rites celebrate incorporation into a new world. In some cases the architectural roots of liminality remain evident: in ancient Rome, successful military leaders returning from conquest purified themselves of the enemy world before passing under the arch of triumph into the Roman world. Van Gennep notes that religions in Africa, China, Japan, and elsewhere use doorways or portals to mark transitions into adulthood, betrothal, pregnancy, and death.

A hundred years later, as our planet transforms around us, these inflection points are more fraught than ever. Adulthood means inheriting a slow-burning crisis; pregnancy carries unprecedented ethical uncertainties. Earth itself is undergoing its own transition, from the pre-liminal state of preindustrial carbon levels to a post-liminal state that environmentalist Bill McKibben has dubbed “Eaarth”: a hybrid of natural systems and human geoengineering. We are all living through the critical period in between.

Humans have caused these changes, but we are also caught in the planetary gears. How can we make sense of this layered betweenness? Two recent books of literary nonfiction, Gillian Osborne’s Green Green Green and Charlie Hailey’s The Porch: Meditations on the Edge of Nature, take an approach that enacts liminality in every aspect, from content and structure to prose style. They document and recreate the precarious state of humans today—as though to offer a rite of passage for the planet.

All literature deals with change, but these books seem stuck, often in the best sense, in a transitional state. They call to mind literary experiments of modernism—works like Woolf’s The Waves (1931) or Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952) that dodge the traditional arc of beginning, middle, end. Today, too, “ecofiction” tests such diffuse plotting and prose as it decenters the human. Richard Powers, for example, has recently overturned conventional plotting in The Overstory (2018) to tell history through the experience of trees. Contemporary visual arts also play with environmental betweenness, as artists mingle discarded plastics and natural objects in installations.

Neither Osborne’s Green Green Green nor Hailey’s The Porch is directly “about” climate change: Osborne explores the phenomenology of a color, while Hailey celebrates the poetics of an architectural space. Yet each is acutely aware of climate crisis and the resulting betweenness that govern our material and imaginative lives. In this spirit, they share the experimental efforts and pitfalls of prose struggling with ongoing change. Such works can be difficult, even ugly, and sometimes boring in their repetitiousness. They represent a cultural rite of passage in a changing world—and a literary approach that will doubtless develop as we wade further into environmental disruption.

The six essays of Green Green Green, Osborne’s first book, loosely trace the contours of a life in transition—her own, but also that of any woman who has found her path taking unexpected turns. Osborne explores greenness in works of literature and natural history, while also recreating the scenes of her own encounters with these texts. She is daughter, student, teacher, poet, gardener, friend, lover, and finally mother, accompanied at each step by the uncanny presence of the color green. While the six essays seem to have been composed independently, this journey through personal and literary history holds the collection together. For Osborne, who received a PhD in English Literature from Berkeley, the book is also “about why I never could become a poet or a professor or a gardener.” It is about disappointment and embracing small deaths—of aspirations, loves, or ideals—that allow new and unexpected things to grow.

The Porch, Charlie Hailey’s sixth book, takes a similarly elegiac tone. Hailey, a professor of architectural practice and history at the University of Florida, offers historical, literary, and personal visions of the porch as a model for how our built environment might encounter a changing climate. “How a porch resists a storm is that it lets the storm inside,” he observes. A porch is indoors and outdoors, personal and public, at once part of the house and part of the air around it. The back porch of Hailey’s cabin in Florida’s coastal wetlands becomes a hub from which he explores porches across history, from ancient Greek temples to the White House. The book might be called Porch Porch Porch. It seeks the idea of the porch: family resemblance across difference. Hailey believes that “porches heighten senses,” so The Porch also becomes “a book about openness to climate, people, wildlife, and ideas.”

Both books mingle memoir with natural, literary, and cultural history, diffracted through fragmented lyricism that is almost ritualistic in its refrain-like repetitions. Again and again Osborne invokes the instabilities of childbirth and motherhood—greenness of another sense—while Hailey finds myriad ways to tell us that porches mingle inside and outside. The books may be “about” a color and an architectural feature respectively, yet environmental crisis creates the material and psychological conditions that govern their expression. Climate change takes shape as a liminal experience that teaches us to doubt things we once thought stable—the position of coastlines, the native wildlife of a beloved place, the inherited homes that may soon become unlivable. In this sense, both books mimic Hailey’s porch and “weather the storm” of climate disruption by “letting it inside.”

Green Green Green reminds us that the world is unreliable and will upend our professional, personal, and intellectual certainties.

Osborne’s Green Green Green is a study in unreliability—starting with the color itself. Western tradition associates green with spring and birth. Yet Osborne’s opening essay points to a “deathliness built into the linguistic history of green.” Green unites “the fresh and the fetid”: from decay and death come new life. Failed love affairs make room for marriage and a child; failed aspirations to poetry and professorship prepare the ground from which these essays emerge.

“These are not really essays,” Osborne also tells us, “though the essay, as a genre, allows for its own unreliability.” Green Green Green is capacious. It includes found poetry, letters between Osborne and a friend, even textual analysis from Osborne’s work as a literary scholar. In some places it reads like a gardening manual, in others like a collection of verbal curiosities and aphorisms. As the course of Osborne’s own life unfolds across the pages, the protean movements of Green Green Green remind us that the world too is unreliable and will upend our professional, personal, and intellectual certainties.

In the book’s six interlocking essays—which are perhaps only loosely essays—Osborne mines her personal life and literary research to think about change. These changes are her own: a young girl’s growth from daughter and granddaughter to wife and mother. But they are also the changes of the planet as it warms, as seasons and weather shift, as fires consume California, and as the solace of orderly narrative is thrown into the crucible of climate disruption.

Emily Dickinson is a guiding spirit throughout. Dickinson’s poems—along with the birds and plants that populate them—trail Osborne on her journey from a childhood in rural upstate New York, across the continent to graduate school in California, and then back east to Dickinson’s native Massachusetts. There are other characters too, less well known but whom Osborne makes engagingly familiar. There is Orra White whose lucent drawings illustrated botanical catalogs compiled by her husband, geologist Edward Hitchcock. The modernist poet Wallace Stevens and contemporary literary critic Jahan Ramazani. Art critic John Berger, whose essay “Ape Theater” Osborne uses to contemplate motherhood and the loss of a mother. In absentia, Berger’s mother.

Yet Dickinson remains the central figure, modeling how greenness may fill and consume a life. Through Dickinson, Osborne asks what it means to know a place. In the essay “Of the Vicinity Of,” Osborne remarks that “the dominant notion of an intellectual life, now, is that it might be lived anywhere. . . . But that has not been my experience of what it means to think, or live, in or of vicinities.” She noticed this dilemma particularly while at Berkeley: “It isn’t that I don’t like California,” she muses. “It’s just that, after nearly a decade, I still don’t know the names of things growing along roadsides there.” Dickinson, who famously secluded herself in her father’s house, represents radical attention to the hyper-local, an expansive poetic growth rooted in a single place. Osborne admires this attention: “I’d like to commit to a vicinity, wherever and whatever it is.”

Osborne lays open a life caught in the interstices of fear, duty, and love.

It is perhaps an unexpected wish to find in such a kaleidoscopic book. The essays make few commitments, instead sustaining the precarious liminality that perhaps characterizes Osborne’s sense of her own life and of the world around her. Yet Osborne discovers beauty and insight amidst the uncertainty. Most potently, she finds motherhood and the strange vulnerability of living “with a heart outside your body.” With these few strokes Osborne lays open a life caught in the interstices of fear, duty, and love.

The Porch too is divided into six sections—call them chapters, essays, or meditations. Hailey introduces his subject in “Porch” before presenting what he calls the structure’s four “core elements”: “Tilt,” “Air,” “Screen,” and “Blue.” After the evocative ambiguity of these isolated nouns, the book concludes on a simple command: “Acclimate.” As such abstraction suggests, Hailey is interested in the multiplicity of his topic. Writing from his Florida cabin, he tells us that “this is a book about the porch. It is a book about a specific porch, this one. It is also about the idea of porch.” The porch, a porch, this porch, porch.

At the same time, Hailey continues, “since porches are inseparable from their environment, this is also a book about place.” Hailey is a writer of vicinities: his previous five books investigate impermanent, vernacular architectural settings such as tent cities, camps, and spoil islands. He goes to the edge of architecture—DIY, off-the-grid squatter communities like California’s Slab City—and he explores. His books approach architecture as a means of seeking freedom: creating alternative lifestyles on the margins of an increasingly rationalized world. Such ad hoc architecture speaks to our vulnerabilities as a species. As Hailey puts it, building a house, no less than a porch, “is a tenuous affair.”

Hailey’s books approach architecture as a means of seeking freedom: creating alternative lifestyles on the margins of an increasingly rationalized world.

The Porch is unabashedly in love with place—specifically, Hailey’s back porch on Florida’s Homosassa River. While the book does not draw heavily on Hailey’s life, a reader comes to know this porch intimately: its dimensions (118 inches deep and 236 inches wide), its furniture and enclosing mesh screen, the tilt that tips its outer edge three inches lower than its houseward edge. Hailey catalogs the objects he left untouched from previous owners: the cracked orange life preserver from the Soviet ship Postyshev, the alligator scute on a marble-topped side table. A reader hovers at his elbow as Hailey writes and draws what he sees. Each chapter is accompanied by his “wandering line drawings,” consisting of a single meandering line. In some chapters Hailey describes the scene that prompted a particular drawing, so we all but watch his pen move across the page.

Hailey’s reader also becomes familiar with the many people who have written about, owned, or lingered on porches: James Agee sleeping on the porches of impoverished tenant farmers in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), Scout eavesdropping from her porch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Beyoncé lounging on antebellum porches in her feature-length music video Lemonade (2016). Those who make porches too: Florida contractors who refuse to build the customary water-shedding tilt into their porches, seeing it as an “imperfection”; Louis Kahn who “built with air as much as with bricks and concrete.” “With porches in particular,” Hailey writes, Kahn “made climate visible with his materials.”

Hailey’s porch tells the story of its climate. The Homosassa River is an estuarial waterway that flows through marine wetlands on the western edge of the Florida panhandle, turning brackish as it approaches the Gulf of Mexico. Like the Cajun coast celebrated in Mike Tidwell’s 2003 Bayou Farewell, these Florida wetlands and the lives built around them are disappearing. “The porch where I write will soon be underwater,” Hailey muses. “For seven decades it rode hurricanes and winter storms. In another seven, the sea will cover the boards.” Already he has seen rusted nails pop from the boards with the pressure of rising surge. Hailey is there to “inventory these changes” for the “future porch-sitter” who may ask: “When did the porch become a ship?”

Any porch is a space of acclimatization. Outside a sacred building, it’s where one takes off or dons specific items of clothing before entering. Attached to a home, it’s where one tests the temperature before venturing out. This process occurs “on the cusp of change,” Hailey observes—and “on a climate frontier” in coastal Florida.

As we acclimate to a “new world” marked by crisis, “we need this edge that places us in the middle of things.”

In today’s world of shifting social, economic, and ecological dynamics, Hailey argues that the porch is “a new kind of necessity.” Granted, “necessity” is a strong word—Hailey’s partiality to his subject matter sometimes runs away with the prose—but one understands the sentiment. As we acclimate to a “new world” marked by crisis, Hailey contends, “we need this edge that places us in the middle of things.” It need not be a porch per se, but “a stoop, the grating of a fire escape, a pickup truck’s lowered tailgate, a roof accessed through a window, or the opened window itself.” Wherever we choose to place ourselves in between, “the key attribute of these places is the exchange of in and out,” Hailey advises. “These places, like my Homosassa porch, inspire active reflection and attentive experience.” From that vantage, we may find ways of “renegotiating the natural and social contracts we have with the world.”

In We Have Never Been Modern (1991), philosopher Bruno Latour describes the predicament of a world where scientific and technological change dictate political and social conditions. As Latour reads in an early 1990s newspaper about ozone holes, contraception, Japanese computer chips, and the AIDS epidemic, he finds that “all of culture and all of nature get churned up again every day.” Green Green Green and The Porch reflect that churning: how encounters with “nature” increasingly involve confronting ourselves—our science and technology—in crisis. We must daily contend with the difference Hailey identifies “between the world we have made and its natural substrate.”

Encounters with “nature” increasingly involve confronting ourselves—our science and technology—in crisis.

At times the churning in these pages feels excessive. When Hailey remarks, “Climate is embedded in the word acclimation, but not too deeply,” for instance, a reader might be excused for wondering what exactly he means. One can overestimate the appeal of one’s subject matter. Yet there is a conscious stylistic strategy at work here—a liminal style, we might say. Osborne and Hailey use the six-part structure to gain flexibility: in each short essay the prose may meander more freely without losing the reader. The themes and stories woven through each book set up resonances that stitch the essays together—and when it works, the effect is masterful. In embracing liminality, each book resembles a porch itself: a screened-in prism of air that holds stories, artifacts, historical and personal memory, the inside and outside mingled together. This approach—perhaps mimetic in Hailey’s case—might in some cases have been more effective if it had accommodated greater dynamism and narrative movement. On the other hand, such a result is almost inevitable, and to hammer the point overmuch may lead one to mistake both authors’ aims.

Green Green Green and The Porch take such risks in part because they are books of liminal dwelling. In the midst of planetary transformation, they linger over particular places, people, and ideas. Their movement is not narrative but imaginative: it comes from setting the reader’s mind in motion. Even while focused on the hyperlocal—say, Hailey’s porch—the books zigzag among epochs, disciplines, and genres. Wherever they take us, their careful observation of natural phenomena, of botany, entomology, water chemistry, and ecology construct a verdant space where one can explore both a changing world and one’s equally resilient, riotous, entangled inner life.

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