I had a dream last night which was introduced with a title card: The Witch’s Eyes. In the dream, all of us are living in a desolate bombed-out cityscape, gray and lonely, held there by the comatose Witch whose eyes bleed a shimmering multicolored vapor. The plumbing and electricity of the city all plugs into her body and through the hexed infrastructure we are caged. Our only escape, us refugees and urchins, is through a virtual reality setup kept fresh and clean in the basement of a ruined hotel. Jumping in, we are set free in a garden of delights, ruled over by the gentle Queen of the Wood, a kind flower of a mother who draws the fairies to her with sweet words and heart’s nectar. The sky is sunny and rainbows of mist float through the colors of the world.
In my waking life, I’ve been reading Braiding Sweetgrass straight through for the first time and I’ve recently started running our local river outfitter company. Together, these two stories are twining into a vision for the future of my community. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about her eutrophic pond and her quest to pull the excessive nutrients out of the water so her daughters have a clear and crisp place for swimming. Here in the Minnesota River Valley, our water is absolutely saturated with fertilizers and is therefore extremely scummy from eutrophication. Seth Yocum of Aqualogical Resources and the Blue Earth Project told me that the Minnesota River is so filled with nitrates and phosphorous that it could nearly be sold as commercial-grade fertilizer.
Our landscape is beautiful but our water is gunk. Add to that our record drought, and add to that the smoke and ash and burning-red sun that tell the story of wildfires in the Dakotas and northern Minnesota. It is apocalyptic here. The Witch’s Eyes burn hot.
It feels as if there is just too much. The waters here are not just sickly, they are overfed, too full, obese. Algae and bacteria grow and rot and grow again in the glut of organic excess. The sun is so hot and the sky so thirsty that no water can stay on the ground. The brush and forest is so dense and overcrowded that a stray flame can erupt into a disaster.
In the dream, in the dark city, I find a glowing computer still running. An access terminal to an unknown web. The screensaver is a messy smear of different colors, like the feather of a dragon rotting in the dirt. In the garden, I find a blooming flower which grows ripe fruit. The juice slices the sunlight into a dancing glitter, and it is sweet.
The more I learn from stories like Braiding Sweetgrass, the more I realize that our attitudes towards the landscape have become displaced and malformed. I include myself in that group, the colonizers, the empiricist pilgrims who were seeking backbreaking labor, moral hierarchies, and agricultural salvation in a New World that was populated with responsible and honest people of all species. Indigenous people who lived in what is now North and South Dakota did not live in overgrown brush. They tended to the landscape as a friend would tend to a friend, or a child to a mother, and the wood did not metastasize. The desire for untouched wilderness is a deadly stupidity we can not afford anymore.
Two minds are separating within me. One is on the river, guiding people into the green, sharing what I know and what I love about the flow of life. The other mind walks through a Best Buy trying to find a blue-shirted dweeb but is distracted by the blasting vibrant rhythmic glitter of kaleidoscopic liquid-crystal illusions. The river is the entire reason our city is here, it is our vein of life and our geographic anchor - so why does it feel so separate from the real lives of every human person here?
In the dream, we decide to end the Witch’s life, for we cannot bear to live two lives anymore. Our bodies are trembling and pale but our minds live only in the garden or dreams of the garden. Together we stand and climb and venture through rubble and dust to the decrepit hospital bed where our Witch sleeps. Black tubes cover her limbs. Her eyes twitch as if in dream and ooze a thick rainbow steam. Quiet as sewer rats we pull saws and blades from our rotting clothes. We each choose a water pipe or internet cable or electrical line and begin to cleave Her from the city.
It is such a joy to show families the beauty of our southern Minnesota waters - but the story of pollution and toxification always comes to the surface. Is it possible to grow into a culture of conscious stewardship of our non-human neighbors when it is so rarely profitable in the financial system in which we find ourselves? What can a private citizen do when the machinery of pollution is hidden behind DO NOT TRESSPASS signs and inside prison-barred sewage pipes? Getting people on the river and out in the photosynthesizing world is only a start - but what comes next?
In the dream, we return home to our soot and garbage. We have gone hours without our secret garden, and cutting up a city’s worth of plumbing and piping is exhausting work. But when we return, our virtual reality is smoking and crackling, burnt, non-functional, dead as our alleyways and apartment complexes. We see now that our city and our garden, our Witch and our Queen, were only two halves of a whole, made sick and false through separation.
Upon waking, I can feel grief and hope spilling into each other, reuniting.
A question for reflection: What is the crux by which your two lives are separated?
Images used are John Simmons’ Titania, an industrial mummy from H.R. Giger, and a picture of the wildfires by a South Dakota park ranger friend of mine. Figuring out which image is which is left as an exercise for the reader.