For art's sake, I will one day build a family.
By Ross Gormley
The acorns in Connecticut are smaller this year. My mother picks one off the back deck and offers it to me: a tight weave of brown and green scales encircling the fruit-bearing nut, now barely a nub, and lime in color. Indeed, it feels minuscule, somehow misshapen, as I roll it in my hands.
“Stunted,” I say to her, as she examines an acorn of her own, “and it’s not even August.”
Here in my childhood house—I’m 28-years-old and back after six years away—I’m sitting outside with a book, relishing in my summer off from teaching. Below my chair, my puppy, Franny—a lab with a cinnamon-colored coat and a shock of white fur above her black nose—stirs in a half-sleep. She occasionally whines and kicks her feet, maybe dreaming of our morning walk.
I become distracted by the acorns beginning to fall from the copse of oaks leaning over the deck. One, then three, then seven acorns, all at once—a muffled staccato. I’ve never seen so many drop in so short a span of time. They bounce along the forest floor, continuing their clunky biological process, then settle in the dirt as if periods at the end of a dramatic sentence. I wonder if I’m to read each one with emphasis, with exclamation. They’re falling so fast I fear I’m becoming desensitized to what an early acorn crop can signal: stressed trees under a warming planet. By not bringing their acorns to full maturation, the trees are conserving their resources and energy.
At this point, I could be melodramatic and say the trees appear to be weeping. I could say they are—like many of my friends in their late twenties—choosing not to have offspring under such uncertain futures, as green acorns with firm caps are not viable in soil. I could also reflect on my childhood in this house, and how my mother and I collected acorns each year to decorate the Thanksgiving table. Or how I used to throw handfuls of them for my old dog to run after, even in his last days.
I might unpack how it is, through this house, that I have come to make sense of my identity and the grand arc that is my narrative life. How being back is now allowing me to again reimagine, but also question, the future I had always wanted for myself. I had planned to settle into this house to raise a family. My kids would play in the same forests, fish in the same streams. But now, under warming, I no longer hold to any particular convictions. I feel, rather, like I am stuck in limbo, waiting for catastrophe to slowly materialize around me.
As a writer, I like to linger in this realm of poetic possibility: What can my acorn mean? But with people suffering all over the world from the climate crisis, I worry such a venture might be solipsistic. In an acorn, there can only be so much.
The earth, after all, is on fire. Animals are dying en masse from heat exhaustion—monkeys and bats literally falling from the sky, their black bodies punctuating the ground in silence. Humans are increasingly dying from high temperatures, as well. There’s been a 50-fold increase in dangerous heatwaves since 1980. The deadliest, the European heatwave of 2003, killed upwards of 2,000 people each day, a number that will only rise in future summers.
Our soil is being depleted—75 billion tons of it lost each year—at the same time droughts and floods are intensifying and decimating crop yields. The poor will starve, dehydrate, and die. Even the ranges of diseases typically limited by climate will be rewritten. Disease vectors will push into northern and southern territories. In the U.S. alone, the number of disease cases from mosquitos, ticks, and fleas have tripled over the last 13 years. Zika is one portent, as is Lyme disease. Scientists warn malaria may eventually reach as far north as Maine and France. Yet corporations still spin propaganda campaigns and sow doubt in the public. Politicians align themselves with ideologies to maintain the status quo—all while climate scientists, those closest to the realities of the coming changes, suffer from high rates of depression and PTSD, a condition called “climate grief.”
And I’m preoccupied with a single acorn in my hand, given to me by my mother?
I’m largely removed from the current crisis. If anything, I’m an example of what climate journalist David Wallace-Wells describes as, “a story of the world’s rich drowning the world’s poor with their waste,” in reference to the flooding that will soon engulf the world’s low-lying coastal zones, namely Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka. Maybe when they march north in the millions to escape drought or heat or floods, I’ll still be in New England musing on what my acorn could possibly mean. And I’ll wonder how much suffering its little cup-shaped body can hold before it cracks under that immense pressure. And with my symbol shattered, poetry may seem beside the point.
But at least for now, it’s sunny and blue skies, and all is calm here in the suburbs. And so I’ll indulge in the potential of my image and offer you this, for what it’s still worth:
Another acorn strikes the deck—a quick thunk—and Franny rushes to her feet. She trots over to its resting place and gnashes the nut with her teeth until its white fruit mottles her pink tongue. She then sits—chest squared and feet aligned, in her most obedient posture—and stares at the oaks, waiting for them to cast her another gift. And they answer. It practically rains acorns before her, my little four-month-old pup. She works feverishly for the next hour as I lose myself in my book, welcoming the distraction. When I again look up, the deck is strewn with the rubble of acorns and Franny sleeps in its center, a ball of fur, utterly satisfied.
Tomorrow, I will come out with a broom and sweep the debris off the deck. My mother will power wash it. She’ll brush the wood with a chemical sealant, killing, for a few more years, the algae and moss and lichen that shade it an emerald green. Where dots of moss stretch across our shingled roof like vast and verdant archipelagos, I will spray bleach, and by winter the remains will turn brittle and black and blow away. Tomorrow, I’ll mow the lawn, trim the barberry, rip up the weeds. And the day after, I’ll wake to another list of chores.
“There is always something to do,” my mother often said to me when I was a child, if I ever sat still for too long. “We are making a home for ourselves,” she would say. She worked hard for me to intuit that work ethic, ingrained in her by her mother, who came of age as a penniless immigrant during the Great Depression and whose hands, even into death, were smarted and thick with calluses—a rough bark—as were her feet from walking several miles each day in long orbits around this home.
With my puppy and my one-day family, I too am trying to imagine my future here in this house, these old bones. Like those before us, I fear we will continue to toil away on our one-acre plot, never minding to stand up and look beyond.
I give the acorn back to my mother, a lime-green seed in her nearly leathered palm. Her fingers are strewn with dirt and flecked with small scars from handling bush and bramble and keeping up this old house. She looks to me and clasps her fingers around the nut—a pendant, for what I’m still not sure. I trust there is work to be done, like always. But instead I sit and hold Franny in my lap, wondering what mess I’ve inherited, and what mess I may one day pass on.