For this issue, we've collected a handful of our favourite pieces from the past concerned with our relationship to the natural environment.
They’re up to 86 bodies, mom said. She didn’t need to clarify the disaster, it was the only news story here. So many, yet still not all of them. And what do you say to that? I told her I didn’t realize that some people were found in the debris after the building collapsed, but I had seen some headlines on Twitter about rescues made two weeks ago right after it happened. They were lucky, she noted: they just happened to be on the periphery of where the rubble landed. I read one of the stories, about a woman who would’ve died in a staircase if she had realized there was one closer to her apartment. Her medicines were in her purse already, the sounds of structural failure alerting her through a window that happened to be open.
I was getting ready to drive upstate the morning we spoke. She was anxious about the trip, more than she would usually be, because Hurricane Elsa was still fast approaching. It ended up veering west, as storms consistently have the past few seasons, sparing my route. The weather here has been weird like that. The summer showers I knew growing up, rolling storms that briefly battered the periphery of the wetlands as they moved east each afternoon, have been replaced by the overcast and drizzling rain of storms moving north from the tropics. And it struck me, caught between all these disasters, each coast pinned down by what was once, in our imaginations at least, a looming threat, that Florida is, like the rest of the world, living through apocalypse. But the land’s contours, the look and feel of the end times here, is unique to me.
What the apocalypse looks like matters. When Fisher wrote in Capitalist Realism, “there is no punctual moment of disaster,” he described how the slide toward apocalypse was slow, uneventful. Now we are here, the apocalypse has happened, and it’s been a knockout fight since. Yes, we have done harm, but in the post-apocalypse the balance of the scales is clear. While our anthropocentric metaphors construct a struggle and activists call for interdependence, any harmony with nature is at this point sheer benevolence. Now, past the records and over the thresholds, all recourse is for us alone. The natural world, all that is other in the era we’ve named the Anthropocene, will survive us.
I feel closest to apocalypse in the Everglades. One evening this January I was driving through Loxahatchee, a rural town on the border of the agricultural wetland that makes up south Florida’s interior, and the dried land, paved in asphalt, that runs along the entirety of the east coast. Loxahatchee, from the Seminole name for the river, The Creek of The Turtle in one translation. On this evening I saw the most beautiful sunset of my life over a large sawgrass prairie. Clouds stretched from overhead to the horizon, glowing pink and orange. And as it set, the light receded until a deep, dark red glowed on the very edge of the world like the embers of a hearth. Slowly, the flames faded and gray, ashen clouds bled into the darkening sky.
Europeans first documented their explorations of the Everglades in the 1840s when few people lived in South Florida. Most of its indigenous inhabitants, mound builders, the descendants of Ice Age hunters and gatherers that entered the state when Florida was several times its current size, lived in coastal regions after ocean levels rose. They were gradually assimilated with other refugees on the continent fleeing towards land undesirable to colonizers. The Seminole’s history is brief compared to theirs, built atop that loss.
The first accounts of the river related to other Europeans came from military expeditions during the Second Seminole War. The unproductive land, the hideouts, the palpable resistance to settlement inspired outrage. At the same time Manifest Destiny cultivated the enduring image of the classical American landscape among the mountains and forests to the West, an army surgeon wrote of the River of Grass:
“It is in fact a most hideous region to live in, a perfect paradise for Indians, alligators, serpents, frogs, and every other kind of loathsome reptile.”
Another, anonymous writer:
“No country that I have ever heard of bears any resemblance to it; it seems like a vast sea filled with grass and green trees, and expressly intended as a retreat for the rascally Indian, from which the white man would never seek to drive them.”
But we did. As soon as railroads made the journey more bearable, agriculture made the land more profitable, air conditioning made the destination more desirable, we settled it. The contemporary Everglades, while still alive, dynamic, and important, is a ruin. Walking along a man-made canal demarcated as L-40 that connects some dozen miles north of the gravel trail I’m on to the Loxahatchee River feels like standing on scaffolding.
There’s a radio tower to the north so tall it is always in the distance no matter how far or close I get. Every few miles I pass a metal platform used to take measurements or sometimes fenced off boxes of instruments I don’t recognize. This is a reclamation area, a refuge for wildlife and water alike, part of an effort to keep the Everglades habitable enough for ourselves. We won’t leave it, and maybe we shouldn’t, but let’s be precise.
There are power lines in view over the cypress to the east, airboats carrying laborers toward plots west, and contrails far overhead. Most days though I’m alone on the trail, and I remember that nature is not quiet. The croaks of frogs, the rumble of a gator’s breath, the whistling yell of a hawk, the monkeyish screech of some bird I still haven’t identified, and the wind as it shakes miles of sawgrass and cypress. Each night, when the sun sets over the shallow river, tens of thousands of birds fly south, just over the grass to their nests and branches for the night.
The sense of an ending I feel in the northernmost ruins of the ancient Everglades is itself a vision of cartoon apocalypse, one I’ve seen before.
In the aftermaths of the Japanese asset price bubble, the Great Hanshin earthquake, and the Tokyo subway sarin attack, apocalypse fiction took on distinct responses to what was dubbed an age of impossibility. The apocalyptic zeitgeist in Japan at that time spurned competing visions of narratological and anthropogenic ends, each enduring to this day: The sekaikei, a form connecting Evangelion to Nier: Automata, that, with its focus on the interpersonal, emphasizes internalized apocalypse by moving between distance and intimacy; and the iyashikei, a contrasting image that, as seen in works ranging from My Neighbor Totoro to Animal Crossing, emphasizes harmony with the natural world through its exploration of space over humanity.
Though manga and anime had addressed related themes before, iyashikei, translated as “healing type,” emerged as a clear subgenre to slice of life manga in the mid-90s. Such works are uninterested in plot, characterization, and conflict. They’re still, rolling portraits of a natural space, explored by characters that possess “a drive to wander, but never to the point of discomfort.+” They depict an endless everyday, a sensibility towards return.
What I would posit as the seminal text to the genre is itself rooted in apocalypse: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō. Variously translated as Yokohama Shopping Log, Record of a Yokohama Shopping Trip, and Quiet Country Café, the manga, written and illustrated by Hitoshi Ashinano, released from 1994 to 2006. YKK is set in a post-post apocalyptic Japan, some decades after climate collapse and Mt. Fuji’s eruption. Our view of the Japanese countryside is tethered to Alpha, an android barista who maintains a café in her owner's stead.
Marc Hairston writes of the manga: “There is a strong sense here of mono no aware (‘a sensitivity to things’), the classic Japanese aesthetic sense of melancholy and an acceptance of the beauty inherent in the impermanence of things.”
While not officially translated to English, widely circulated subs of the 1998 and 2002 OVAs established the works' popularity. It is in these OVAs—as Alpha rides 20th century modes of transportation on the ruins of public infrastructure, as both the natural space and the artificially feminine figure inhabiting it are represented as quietly, yet undeniably, sapphic—that I see my home state. The apocalypse, called only “The Age of Evening Calm,” is past. Humanity may continue to dwindle, but the disaster has stopped.
Video essayist Pause and Select positions iyashikei as the foreground to the preeminent slice of life anime of the past two decades, the nichijokei (literally “everyday type”). Exemplified by works such as Lucky Star and K-On!, these texts return to the social realm, providing a form of escapism from the real. But the social function of nichijokei preludes its end, since, “to be able to live this endless everyday is to be comfortable to do so.” The necessary reckoning with the status quo of a post-3/11 media landscape demanded change, if not action.++ And so the docile fictions we reach for to find comfort in changed as well. Iyashikei's decade-long resurgence has only intensified over the past year—again in response to apocalyptic sentiment.
In Biomutant, the apocalypse is represented by saturated foliage, a post-post apocalypse where nature has reclaimed the world, yet nascent orders straddle the precipice of apocalypse anew. The irradiated landscape borrows heavily from the imagery of zany, Western cartoon futures like Adventure Time and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, and it’s clear in the games orientalism, and especially its binary morality system, that any understanding of the apocalypse as something more than disaster is delimited by distance and derivation.
While other apocalypse fictions have represented climate collapse, Biomutant’s whimsical-yet-didactic tone is striking. The game seems unaware of how ironic its “upcycling” crafting system looks in the shadow of apocalypses, but it also suggests it was corporations that polluted the world and made it uninhabitable before leaving for somewhere else. So, I struggle to situate the apocalyptic background of Biomutant. While it stumbles over Buddhist conceptions of masse, it’s non-punctual climate collapse and surface-level interest in nature does evoke the aesthetic interests of iyashikei. But at the same time it is about conflict and action. Generously, this reminisces the mappo of apocalypse fiction such as Akira, but more likely draws from contemporary shonen and the norms of AAA games.
It looks cool, it’s supposed to be fun to play.
But Biomutant does understand this: the irradiated post apocalyptic landscape will look different from the nuclear apocalypses envisioned in America’s past. It is a fraught and flawed execution of a Western appropriation of post-3/11 storytelling, one that misunderstands the contemporary nature of expression and seeks simplicity in a world that insistently reminds us there is none.
I think what has drawn me to Japanese apocalypse fiction is its reckoning with Florida’s still looming disasters. Playing Biomutant, I am reminded not of vague fears of pollution from an otherwise clean energy, but of phosphate mining.
Phosphate mining is one of those awful things corporations are doing to the environment under the complicit guise of government inaction that will leave the Earth irrevocably fucked, and Florida is at the center of the US’s industry. Clay settling ponds streak the landscape around deposits in north and central Florida, barren land that we don’t know what to do with. Refining it into phosphoric acid produces poisonous gas and irradiated waste. And then we put it into fertilizers that run off into rivers or get dumped illegally, destabilizing aquatic ecosystems. Much of the fertilizer is used to grow sugar in the same state. It destroys the land and then poisons the water, spurring harmful algal blooms dubbed red tide.+++
The irradiated waste isn’t just a threatening footnote, however. It’s calcium sulphate, phosphogypsum, predominantly irradiated by radium 226 and uranium decay products. There are other harmful constituents, like mercury and lead, but those pale in comparison to the threat of radiation. 46 million tons of phosphogypsum waste is produced each year, but the only solution we have for managing all this is to mix it into water and store it in small lakes atop giant mounds of earth in what are called phosphogypsum stacks. These "gyp stacks" hold several billion tons of processed water around the state, and the plan is to keep them contained, forever. And it’s already not working.
As the private companies solely responsible for managing the stacks foreclose, those stacks have fallen into disrepair. As monopolies in the industry grow, restrictions and protections have gone to the wayside, leading to old stacks being used for years after surpassing the volume they were designed to hold. Just this year the Pine Point stack flooded the surrounding neighborhoods and prison. The solution: drain some of the irradiated water into Tampa Bay. It’s not even the first time we’ve turned to that “solution” for relief. And of the more than two dozen gyp stacks in Florida, five have collapsed into sinkholes, contaminating the surrounding aquifer. The extent of the damage is truly unknown, but the felt effects are limited enough to small, rural communities that it's not a problem most locals to the state are even aware of.
Activists have warned that many of the uncapped reservoirs, long since overfilled, are nearing total failure. Each hurricane season that moves up the Gulf Coast whips processed water out, away from its storage. Rain fills the stacks and the new mixture floods down the sides of the hills. A bad enough storm, and the structure could—will eventually—give. There is no punctual moment of disaster. Living in apocalypse, a slide which began some decades ago, we feel the past, anticipate the future.
The recovery efforts stalled again the week I finished writing. 97. Still not all of them, though.
I don’t know that we could know what the apocalypse truly looks like. The existential terror is never dark enough, never deep enough, never big enough. I cannot know what the end looks like, no more than I cannot imagine it. But I can look outside, take a walk along the canal. Birds fly low over the sawgrass during golden hour, their sounds gradually replaced by an ensemble of insects. I can watch the sun set, not quite as it did that evening in January, and think that this era came to its twilight so pleasantly.
+ Pause and Select, “Understanding Disaster, Part 4: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou and the Harmonious Apocalypse”
++ 3/11 refers to the triple disaster of the March 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the ensuing Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Though it falls outside of America’s cultural memory and the extent of its impact on Japanese creative expression cannot truly be known, popular Japanese films in America over the past decade, such as Shin Godzilla and Your Name, are themselves explicit commentaries on the disaster.
+++ Another animated vision of apocalypse in the real.
Autumn Wright is a Florida based essayist and critic. Find their latest writing at @TheAutumnWright.