A few years ago, during the penultimate week of a fellowship at the New York Public Library, I had the fortune of taking a tour through the labyrinthine stacks of the Stephen A. Schwarzman building on Fifth Avenue. A controversial renovation had been announced, and for months, New Yorkers had debated the logistics and consequences of moving the lion’s share of the collection off site in order to address concerns that the library’s stacks might be too fragile to continue the twin tasks of housing its books and supporting its weight.
On an otherwise empty shelf at the foot of a metal ladder I barely survived sat a box labeled :
ITEMS AWAITING PROTECTIVE ENCLOSURE
…When I saw these words , I scrambled to grab them, get them down on paper, preserve their correct order. Right away I knew: This was something, a thread, a line if I’d ever seen one. A gift. Just sitting there in the library basement. A title maybe. I told myself that I would wait as long as necessary for the right story to come along and claim it. Of course, this would turn out to be the one I had already been writing for the better part of a year – though two more years would pass before its hazy, disparate threads (shed hunting, unrequited first love, a father obsessed with littering transgressions) finally came together.~ ~ Téa Obreht, Contributor Note
For all of us, the present is full of items awaiting protective enclosure. Sometimes the protection is to keep us safe from their ill effects, and sometimes it’s to preserve them for as long as we have recall; because we all carry the past with us. It might weigh like a millstone around our necks, as it does for the father in this story, or it might be, as with the daughter, more like a little satchel we open from time to time to enjoy the joy of what was, mixed with the pain of loss.
For the second time in this volume, I’m tempted to just point to Jake Weber’s extraordinary analysis of the story, an enlightening analysis of the way the past, present, and future speak to each other through narrative technique. But, again, that feels like cheating.
As I read, I was reminded again (I haven’t brought this up in a few years) of Asimov’s comment about the difficulty of science fiction being how to clue the reader in to the details of the fictional world, without being tedious or obvious about it. Obreht is selective with details here. We know our neglect of the environment has caught up with us, that some things – “bacon and air travel and elephants” for instance – no longer exist, that the country is in a Posterity program, which seems to be about letting what exists be free of human intervention as much as possible, so that it will make it into a hoped-for but uncertain future. We know there are kelp rigs and meat is but a memory. And we know shed elk antlers, poached from the Posterity reserves, go for big bucks.
Wade maneuvers you both to the sofa with pamphlets and rank gray tea, then carefully sits between you.
“So—which of you is looking forward to reabsorption?”
While Wade talks your father through the marketing collateral, you try to smother your irritation. Let Dad get the reassurance he needs: that he’s doing the right thing, that pod burial restores soil nutrients, that you just don’t get this kind of solace from a coffin.
“Something about committing to reabsorption just gives folks a sense of peace,” Wade says. “I know it did for me.”
Wade insists you take all the time you need. “It’s a tough mind–shift. In the end, we’re all just items awaiting protective enclosure. Most of us have a vision of what that is—a coffin, an urn. Not everyone can get used to the idea of a tree. But remember that with a Serenity Pod, the whole world is your memorial.”
The trouble is, he really means it.
Sometimes that includes people.
Sylvia’s dad is burdened with the knowledge that his youthful wastefulness passed on a ravaged world to his daughter, so he opts for this Pod as his burial chamber. Obreht makes a wise decision to imply rather than explain the pods: somehow they turn remains into food for trees. I hate to break it to Syl’s dad, but that’s what we all are, one way or another, as the poets – Whitman, in particular, comes to mind, as well as the pre-Socratic natural philosophers – have long told us. The world has been recycling itself for 4.5 billion years; but as Wade tells Sylvia (and could there be a better character’s name for this reminiscence set in environmental catastrophe), there’s a lot of money in guilt.
[Digression: as I looked for a header image for this post, I came across Capsula Mundi, an Italian firm developing what seems like precisely the burial pod technology in the story. Green burial has been around for a long time (millenia, in fact, up until the past couple of centuries) but the plan is to bury people in something like a burlap root sack of a young tree. You can literally hug Grandma as she grows into a mighty oak. For only $490 you can buy an urn for Granny’s ashes and bury it under your own tree; complete body burial is still in development. I seem to be without the nearly-universal reverence for dead bodies, so I say, hey, why not, but will we need to cut down forests to make room for six billion trees?]
It’s an envelope story: a brief introduction and coda, with the plot occurring as an extended flashback. It’s a perfect structure for the title: the story itself has been enclosed, just as Syl’s memory of Wade has been enclosed for decades, and is released when he calls out of the blue. It’s your basic unrequited love story, but placing it in this setting lifts it up and blends it into a far more universal theme.
And by the time your husband is moving toward you with the ladle, asking, “What’s wrong? Who is it, Syl?” It’s no longer memory, but truth: the great, unrealised love of your youth ends with a sighting of the last bull elk in Fell Gulch, his huge, black head in full sylvan splendor.
So of course, you sound exactly the same. So does Wade. And it shouldn’t really surprise you that even after everything – after the bust; and Kenny’s move to Michigan; and your return to ecology; and your years on the same kelp rigs that will eventually lure at least one of your sons; and the great, wild-easy love of your marriage; and life here in Grey’s County; and the eventual death of your father (not from cancer, but pneumonia, of all things, at the age of eighty-three); and so many iterations of disappointment and hope – all it takes is the sound of Wade’s voice to unearth that other part of you: clenched around your guttering twenty-year-old heart, intact, still and always in that moment, in that clearing, raw and sweet, right down to the marrow.
And here again, Obreht shows a wise restraint. We only know Wade calls, Sylvia remembers, and the story ends. We don’t know if he’s in town, if she runs off with him, if he needs money, or any of a thousand other possibilities. The story doesn’t care about the present’s future, it’s too busy with the past’s future, and the present’s past.
It’s a horrifying story to read at this moment, as some of us try to grapple with the reality that we are likely at an environmental point of no return, yet we are so reluctant to change our lives that we’re unable to overcome the political quicksand that keeps us on a course to disaster. It could well tip over into the ripped-from-the-headlines story, or a sermon. But it doesn’t. I really wanted to dismiss it as a romance, but the resonances kept building. It’s horrifying, but it’s also great reading – so like the bittersweet past, this mixture. So like every day, for us, all objects awaiting protective enclosure.