Jessica E. Wragg

Tag: environment

We Need the Forest – Revised

The tracks of the underground train from the carriage window. Hot breeze of the last act of summer whistling beneath my blouse. Barbed wire like thumbprints and fingers and outstretched palms. No, the jungle is not the same as Streatham Hill, but the birds are just as loud.

Jealous of our travelling friends in Thailand and South America we did the best we could. Tooting Bec Common was our wilderness, that place in which we searched for things un-done, never tried, never seen. You wanted mountain-scapes, thick cities rich in colour, but instead the horizon was tower blocks behind Bedford Hill and the same church building; a thick tapestry of brown brick and a canopy of tile rooves.

We blew smoke rings, propped up by our elbows until the room filled with the thin mist of mid-morning, searched the internet for the cheapest flights to the furthest distance. We visited the aquarium and spent hours in the tropics, in the pacific, in the mangroves. We fought through the thickets of commuters going south as we travelled north and hiked the Parliament Hill. In Richmond Park we got as close to the red deer as we dared, ignored the twenty others around us snapping pictures on their smartphones, throwing a peace sign to the buck. The zoo was as close as I came to the SavaWritennah desert, or the outback of Australia.

Car exhaust on our tongues, pigeon shit, stagnant water; we turned them to spices and incense, salt water and red dry dust. Our flat was our cabin; pale floral wallpaper faded to brown, overrun by damp. We looked out onto a neat row of garages; grey, brown, black doors, blue beneath as the paint cracked off. Ten, perhaps twelve angular hatchbacks parked in front but to us they are rocks in a stream. At night, sirens turned to the chirping of crickets, and the headlamps of passing cars illuminated our window like torches. Cars that scraped their bumper on the road taking a speedbump too quickly sounded like the cracking of branches. I worried sometimes that the longing would drive us mad, you wondered if we already were. Me and you, we both fitted in quite well.

And then one night you woke me when the sun hadn’t risen yet. My eyes searched for you in the dark and found you, a figure crouched at the end of the bed. Your body bent double and your back hunched with urgency, the cool side of your hand brushed my ankle. In the black I found your face and felt the damp contours and the rolling tears. The shuffle of your canvas rucksack was soft and quiet, and when you put it on your back I could tell it was heavy from the sound you made. You kissed my hair and opened the door of the bedroom and yellow light drowned the room, blinding me. The last thing I saw was the rubber heel of your boot as your closed it again.

I lay on my back until the sun came up and waited for the birds to signal morning, climbed the tree down from the upstairs window to the forest floor. The soft gravel branches crunched beneath me and the mist hung low by the very ground. I caught a sparrow by the wing and plucked feathers from its breast, hung it by the limp feet and bit into it with a frenzy appetite until the guts dropped onto my chin. I bounced from the rocks in the stream, dipped my toe in cool water of the puddled pavement and ran barefoot over broken glass and the speedbumps. The ground shook with an underground train but to me it was the earth sighing, and when the rain fell thick it got caught in the canopy. I spoke a strange language that I didn’t understand, walked upon my hands and lost my fingernails digging in the dirt.

Wildness is a strange word, but I understand it to be me. We did our best there, in the city. Yet still, the feeling that I needed the forest and the mountains, the beaches of an island and the tongue of natives won me in the end. A life without me seemed to have won you.

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Origins

I wrote this piece as part of a larger project, imagining the origins of London and some of the world’s other biggest cities and the effect that human emotion could have taken on it. The environment and its decline, to me, is one of the biggest issues facing our civilisation at the moment in time, and it’s influenced a lot of my writing recently. 

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There is an ocean, which laps at my shoulders
softly. Prodding me, sending foam sailing across
my skin with every wave. Dull green weeds clamour
the base of my neck like a crowd at the gates.

Forcefully treading water, gently paddling the surface
for four feet deep in ten, my toes curled so as to
not catch the snuggle-tooth coral below, or perhaps the church
spire pushed from the sand like straight, proud shoulders.

And yet, for all the salt, I still taste the dead city.
The sea took it, replaced it with nothing, built water
on its rooftops, covered its head with a bed of sand hidden
between the kelp that travelled here by accident on a current.

The smell is not salt water and plastic and scum it is
saffron, jasmine, myrrh floating through the water on
a bubble of air from the deep. With every shift of
earth comes the perfume of a lost civilisation.

There is an ocean, which laps at my shoulders,
whispering a secret that I already knew. The stories
of children climbing buildings to escape the water,
their fingers scrambling on smooth marble to get higher.

Of the elderly women, so taken by the flood that they
took cups from their kitchens, scooped them up in their hands
and tried to drink it away, expectant and wrinkled fingers
grasping at the china, realising when it was too late.

It did not take minutes for the water to rise, it took
weeks, months – so long that the King himself
did not see it until he got out of bed one morning to find
his slippers not where he left them, but floating by his dresser.

Thin like matchsticks, thick like fists, buildings toppled down
like pins against a giant ball. My father told me the stories whilst
my mother hushed him through the violence. I came here first
looking for survivors but found only schools of fish. My brother

had told me that they were the people – turned into creatures
by the Gods for disobeying them but I know that they are just fish.
I know the stories too well; of a city up in flames, rotting from
the inside outwards, crumbling slowly into pieces like Sodom.

I know the stories of a city which did not see the flood until the
King had lost his rabbit fur slippers. I sometimes see them
on the horizon, still floating on the surface,
heading out in search of a new pair of feet to keep warm.