Laura Crawford is a senior majoring in Anthropology with a concentration in Environmental Anthropology.
My goal for this project was to think about environmental justice issues through the lens of water. Part of how I chose to carry this out was to attempt to describe the experiences of water through a human perspective, meaning through the main character’s dreams. I wanted to anthropomorphize water so that the reader, probably someone living in the United States with a Western educated perspective, would be able to relate to the water.
One main issue that I was thinking about in writing this piece was the nature-culture binary, a conceptualized separation between the “natural” world and a world with human influences. This is largely a Western creation and has been used as a justification for exploitation of natural resources. While many scholars and worldviews outside a Western paradigm have been objecting to this binary for a long time, I use a human perspective to describe the experiences of water in certain environmental justice contexts to try to reinforce the idea that these two are not separate at all. I also wanted to explore how to make water more understandable to a human audience, since a Western worldview generally thinks of water as a passive object, not an active agent. I wanted to blur the Western-drawn line between nature and culture while also portraying water as an agent and someone who the audience could somewhat understand and empathize with. In writing about environmental justice as well as labor exploitation, I tried to make the focus on the exploitative systems in place wherever possible, and not just the actions of a few actors.
Keywords: Fiction; magic realism; environmental degradation; water; social inequality
The rain is pouring down. It’s late at night, or early in the morning depending on who you ask. A woman can be heard screaming blood-curdling screams, while a quieter male voice tries to console her. The contractions had come on suddenly, and they were on their way to the hospital, but it was too late to get there in time for the baby. She gave birth in the car with the rain pounding down on the roof. By the time they made it to the hospital, the baby was already out, replacing the women’s screams with the cries of a newborn. The couple checked in to the hospital anyway, just to make sure the mother and the child could get checked out okay. Looking back, the man remembers thinking that there was too much fluid involved in the whole process. The rain, the water breaking, the baby all covered in goop when she came out, it was like it all blended together to make one liquidy mess of new life.
Now, at twenty, the storms the girl sees the most often are the ones in her dreams. She usually collapses into the bed exhausted anyway, and is transported into some kind of rain where she sees through the eyes of the water. In the different neighborhoods of her city, she can see how different communities have to weather the storms. She recalled hearing in high school something about the disproportionate burden of climate change on different classes, but in her home city she could see the disproportionate burden of the weather of everyday life. She could see and feel herself as the water dripping through leaky roofs, flooding into basements of the old houses that needed to be redone. She knows that if the water is not properly cleaned out of these homes, it will stagnate and grow mold that permeates the lungs of the residents. She can see and feel herself as the water running over the new houses, witnessing the residents warm and dry instead. She knows that the damages wrought on by the rain will require more fixing in the poor neighborhoods, which she knows is unlikely when people have more urgent problems. These dreams are not happy, but it is a welcome respite from the exhaustion of her everyday life.
She had wanted to go to college like a few of her friends, but she knew after talking with her mother that this wouldn’t be a possibility. Not after her father’s medical bills for a cancer that everyone in the neighborhood knew to be from the waste facility nearby. He wasn’t the only one, either – the cancer incidence in the neighborhood had gone up since the facility was built, but the government insisted that the waste had no impact on human life. And then what could the people of her neighborhood do? The government was the place they were supposed to go to for help, but here they were saying their help wasn’t needed, that the townspeople were crazy for saying so. They said any correlation was just a coincidence. It had to be something else. Regardless, her family was left with medical bills that weren’t going to pay themselves. While her mother worked in a long term care facility, she had taken up an administrative job and a cleaning job. Because of both of their fragmented schedules, it felt like they barely saw each other around the house any more. They were like two ships passing in the night.Trying to balance work and home life had been okay when she first started working, but as her supervisors demanded more and more flexibility on her end, it increasingly felt like she was making undue sacrifices just to keep these jobs. It wasn’t even flexibility any more; it was just at their beck and call whenever they needed her to come in, and she needed the money too much to say no and risk losing a job. When she tried to get days off for whatever reason, even for a doctor’s appointment, she had to go through two managers – if on the off chance one of them gave her the time off, it was unlikely that the other did the same.
So by the time she usually got home from work, she was usually exhausted. Nonetheless, there were always housework duties and duties having to do with caring for her father that she had to do. It felt like she was just being pulled in all kinds of different directions, just with paychecks to show for it that immediately would go towards rent or paying off bills or food for the house. While these water dreams were not always the happiest, they were a break from reality. Her reality, at least.
One dream came that was out of the ordinary. It was raining like usual, and she could see and feel as the raindrops coming down. However, she could also feel as the river that the raindrops were running into, being contained by a dam. One thing that she was surprised by was how frustrating this felt, this containment. It felt as though the people who were trying to “manage” the land and “optimize” the use of the water were trying to control her. They were trying to exploit her in the name of modernity, of technology. It felt like they were trying to keep her from running the course she was intended to run. This was the course she had run for centuries, she could feel it. And this dam built fifty years ago had disrupted her course and disrupted the land, the plants, and animals that had all evolved to depend on her running her course. She was surprised at the frustration she felt at this injustice. All because some people who had read about water, studied rivers and the rain from afar, decided that they knew what was best for it. Feeling as the rain and the river, it reminded her of the frustration that she felt at having to give so much of herself to her low-paying jobs. The exploitation and coercion into serving others, as the river, was a familiar feeling to how she felt at work. She could feel herself as the river swelling from the rain, flooding over the banks. She swelled and swelled until she reached buildings nearby, and could feel herself seeping into the foundations and flooding the basements. She felt some guilt, but was it really her fault that the rain caused this? It is the fault of the people who thought they could control her flow and change it from what it was really meant to be. They saw water as an object to study and control rather than an entity to live with and respect. They had caused this flood by building the dam in the first place and then building their buildings so close by, when they knew there was a risk of flooding. She was remembering how she was supposed to flow in the first place, before these people came in and tried to change her.
The next dream was similarly frustrating, but in different ways. She was coming down as the rain again, falling over a landfill not far from her city. She didn’t live particularly close to it, but there was a community nearby who had disagreed with the government plan to place the landfill in that spot. She could see why when she fell as the rain. She ran over the nooks and crannies of the waste and ran, carrying waste and chemicals with her into the nearby stream which the animals drank out of and the children played in. She carried this waste and chemicals as she leached into the ground. While the government had planned it in this particular spot within these particular boundaries, she, as the water, carried the landfill’s effects over those man-made boundaries. She could see with sadness the effects of this waste on the nearby communities, as the government had disregarded the value of their lives enough to place the landfill so close to them. They could not see (or at least chose not to acknowledge) the interconnectedness of these people to the landscape around them. The landfill did not exist in a vacuum. It was a painful reminder of her father’s cancer diagnosis. Why should these innocent people suffer? So that others don’t have to? The wealthy people in the city with their new houses and their safe and dry indoor spaces certainly don’t have to worry about landfills nearby.
It was a day she was dreading. She was trying to prepare herself to ask her managers if she could get a day off from work three weeks in advance so that she could take her father to the doctor’s office. If they said no, she would have to ask her coworkers to cover for her. She knew it was something that they would be willing to do, but still felt horrible asking. After all, they had their own family obligations and lives outside of work. She had overheard one of her managers saying it before: “work-life balance is a personal responsibility of staff.” She felt like she heard those words being tossed around a lot – “personal responsibility.” Personal responsibility, equality, opportunity – those were the buzzwords she heard thrown around when she heard people talk about the great things about the United States. Then, did she have more of a “personal responsibility” to work than other kids her age that were working high-paying jobs that they got from their parents? She recalled a sound bite from an interview she had heard where a celebrity was explaining that he deserved his wealth because he worked hard. Did he work harder than her mother, who works 80 hour work weeks? Did he work harder than her coworkers, many of whom were working two or more jobs? It seemed that personal responsibility and working hard are disproportionately distributed, like much else in the world. So, it was her personal responsibility to be able to work long hours and care for her family. All these negative thoughts were not going to help her make this request of her manager, though. She walked into his office, noting the framed photos of a woman and a child sitting on his desk. A drawing that looked like it had been done by a child sat tacked to a bulletin board behind him, next to a calendar and some kind of form. She nervously asked her question – “It’s just that my mom can’t take him and we don’t have anyone else that can take him… I’m trying to ask as early as possible… please?” She barely remembered his response, but just knew it started with “well, what if we need you here? We don’t know what the day is going to look like then…” She had to struggle to keep her face expressionless until she got out of the office. How could someone be so callous? She wasn’t looking forward to going back to her family and telling them the response.
She was a storm again that night in her dreams. This time was particularly vengeful – she could feel the frustration from the last day coming through in the pouring rain and strong winds, the booming thunder and flashes of lightning. She could feel the frustration and disappointment of feeling exploited at work coming out as she battered houses and offices as the droplets. She was permeating everything in the city. She was so caught up in the intensity of the storm that it took her a long time to realize that she normally would have woken up by now, returned to her reality of work and home and labor. She felt free as the storm, though, unable to be controlled. The storm had taken her as its own, and part of her liked it better this way. She would keep humans from controlling her, from trying to know her completely. As a storm, she was raging, and she wasn’t stopping any time soon.