Where I Went Wrong


In telling the story of where I went wrong, my mom drew two lines to mark the turning points that led me down a singular, inevitable path toward a male babysitter who drew no lines at all. 

One “if only” line: if we hadn’t moved to that neighborhood, we wouldn’t have met the family who lived across the street, and their fourteen-year-old son would not have been invited to babysit. 

The second “if only” line: in third grade, I wasn’t admitted into Discovery, the gifted program at Canyon View Elementary, when the district implemented a new test that I did not pass. Mom believed that rejection crushed my ego, blew a hole in my nine-year-old-girl-tough confidence. She and I, when trying to explain what happened back and forth to each other, etched that line deeper and deeper, until it wore a groove into every story we shared. That gold star of Gifted and Talented would have worked as a shield, protecting me from overzealous boys and my own attention-seeking ways. 

After my dad and mom divorced, she started dating Carl. I was trying very hard to prove that I belonged at Reed College, where I, in this version of the story, would have fit in better if I had achieved a gold star from the Gifted and Talented Program my whole childhood. I probably would have dated more selectively too. But if smart guys from Reed wanted to sleep with me, wasn’t that a kind of gold star of its own? 

Mymom told me that Carl didn’t think anyone would marry me. He ’d told her that men don’t marry smart women. 

Was this a compliment? Did this explain why he never married my own smart mother? Or is that just another story to explain why, at twenty-two, I was still unmarried? An odd thing for a girl from Utah, but one I had attributed more to my having gone down a wrong, unmarriable path than to the fact that I had been admitted to and attended a liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon—despite my inconsistent testing skills.


It is beguiling to invoke that mythology of the road not taken, as if there are only two diverging roads in a wood. But narratives are big on turning points, and turning points suggest that a particular path leads directly to the inevitable now, without remarking on the fact that the now keeps moving, as does the story, even as does the path. And at what point do we determine the now? Western classical literature understands narrative to move directionally forward, each turning point a development that leaves a traveler responsible for her choices. Is this pre- and postlapsarian conditioning the only lens through which we can view the past? There was a tree. There was an apple. And there was a bite. A before and an after. Was accepting the narrative of the apple the moment when we stopped seeing a forest full of possible steps and instead saw only one of two ways to go? 

In non-Judeo-Christian cultures, the path that moves forward like a road, always pushing toward some destination, isn’t the only narrative model. Instead of a train track or a freeway or even a path in the woods, some cultures hang their narrative structures on different images. Navajo storytellers consider rain, spider webs, and spirals as possible models instead of the usual track or arc. Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016) argues that to stave off the worst effects of climate change, we who are acculturated in teleological philosophies will have to change the way we think. To change the way we think will require changing the way we narrate our lives. Early in the book, she considers the string game Cat’s Cradle and what it means for Navajo story-making: 

In the Navajo language, string games are called na’atl’o. . . . These string figures are thinking as well as making practices, pedagogical practices and cosmological performances. Some Navajo thinkers describe string games as one kind of patterning for restoring hózhó, a term imperfectly translated into English as “harmony,” “beauty,” “order,” and “right relations with the world,” including right relations of humans and nonhumans.

Haraway considers what might be possible if we think using different frameworks, languages, and contexts. Perhaps then we could see new ways of restoring balance to the world. The distinction, to my mind, between a path and rain or nests as a model that might lead toward hózhó is that the path isn’t manmade—the vulnerability of a nest or rain or spiderwebs is that the way may not be made only by racing from Point A to Point B on a singular narrative trail. As Haraway says, “Not in the world but of the world, that crucial difference in English prepositions is what leads me to weave Navajo string figures.” 

Of suggests genesis, birth, and a shared sense of origin. In is a casual relationship: I’ll pop into the store. I’m in line for tickets. I am in it for the money and the glory. If my mom and I had Donna Haraway’s notions of narrative, or had opened our eyes to our Navajo neighbors’ stories, perhaps we wouldn’t have put so much money on those lines that made the future seem inevitable. 




In Staying with the Trouble, Haraway compounds her argument—that new ways of thinking are necessary to confront and stave off the harshest effects of climate change—by noting that change itself in an ecological system isn’t the problem. The rate of change is the problem. A tree’s slow death creates all kinds of new life. A tree burned in fire creates nothing but more carbon dioxide. A chunk of ice calving from an ice sheet creates an iceberg. A melting of an ice sheet creates a country without a Florida. Haraway poses an interesting paradox. You can tell yourself any story you want. Perhaps the United States would look better without a Florida. Does this count as rethinking the issue? Or in reinventing the narrative, is it the way the story is told, not the facts, that changes the thinking? All girls grow up, but some girls grow up faster when introduced to lines in the sand and boy babysitters. Staying with the Trouble hadn’t been written when I was in third grade. In fact, in third grade, the idea of the Anthropocene and the planetary effects of human resource depletion wasn’t a discussed issue. The linear path then was go to school, get a job, make money, have kids, buy a house in a subdivision denuded of trees. What would Haraway’s version of my story be? Definitely something with circles—something that placed a little blame here, a little blame there, but didn’t find much truck in shame. Shame doesn’t bring Florida back. 

Trying to decipher what went wrong isn’t particularly useful. Haraway’s version of staying with the trouble requires “learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or Edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.” To stay with the trouble means to consider, even perform, different story lines. To stay with the trouble is to imagine different turning points as not THE turning point, the line in the sand that you cross and from which you can never turn back. Staying with the trouble means keep turning back. Look at this story again. See what else there is. 




The choice was between a house on a property with mature trees, nestled into the brown-grass foothills by the University of Utah, or the house in the new subdivision, its landscape scraped bare, nestled below, but not into, the blue spruce, Douglas fir, and quaking aspens of the Cottonwood canyons. I was ten years old and already in love with trees. “Hey druids, get down from there,” my mom would call to me and my cousin, high up in my grandma’s plum tree. We climbed down from those limbs just to climb into the tire swing that hung from the giant black willow that shed its branches every winter. Along with my Girl Scout buddy who was the babysitter’s sister, I collected volunteer points by raking the branches up and carting them, bagged in black garbage bags, to the curb. 

Gambel oaks were the mature trees growing around the house that my parents wanted to buy. Oak trees in Salt Lake do not grow very tall, but they greened up the windows outside the sliding glass door to the bedroom that would have been mine if my parents chose to buy this house. If only I ’d known how much easier it would be to sneak out at night from a sliding door than from a window that opened onto the roof of the hot tub room that my dad and I would build, I might not have talked my parents into the house by the canyons. “We can plant whatever trees we want,” I convinced them. I could choose the color of my bedroom carpet—bright blue. The twins each had their own room. Each room had both a closet and a cubby where I could drag my blankie, named Fluffy, into the corner and read my books. Or my parents’ books. Or my dad’s magazines. I read everything. The cubbies had their own lightbulbs—that’s what we got with this new house: light at every turn, no green vegetable matter to spoil the view. 

If only we hadn’t moved, goes the story my mom and I told each other. If only that line hadn’t been crossed. It was a battle between territories. Which would win? The one with the history—a seventy-year-old house in the heart of Salt Lake City, one whose owners and the owners before them had shaped the landscape but let the natural oaks grow up and around the back deck, whose smells permeated the drywall, whose taste in brown shag carpet ran wall-to-wall? Or the one with no history, the land shaped by bulldozer. No smells except for carpet glue and new paint. 

Imagine that other life. The one lived by the university, where there were different babysitters, no new developments, just the old, Virginia creeper history of Federal Heights, where the first big houses were built for prominent members of the LDS church’s priesthood, where sycamore and linden, maple and elm lined the streets and protected the children from the ravages of bulldozers digging up their makeshift playgrounds of scrappy oaks and indigenous cottonwood trees. 




To pit house against house is an even match. So too is the match between inexorable forces of climate change and the quieted, unheralded valor of trees. In the American West, the quaking aspens are dying. Bark beetles chew through pine trees. Some trees on the east coast are moving west. Some trees are moving to higher elevations, changing the definition of “tree line” every couple of decades or so. Every fall, the fires grow bigger and hotter. On the other hand, how many trees should we plant to combat climate change? One billion? My dad planted two apple, a pear, and a maple in the backyard. These trees are not native to Salt Lake City, but one day, forty years from when he planted them, they’ll provide shade and soak in carbon dioxide. Maybe on their way up, they’ll provide some fruit. Since very few Americans seem willing to stop using fossil fuels, are we going to have to try to push back against the carbon surge by planting trees? 

Carbon cycle expert Dr. Richard Houghton is an ecologist who studies the role terrestrial ecosystems play in climate change and the global carbon cycle, working from the Woodwell Climate Research Center, which he helped shape. His early work highlighted the importance of land use changes in generating carbon emissions. He estimates that aggressive forest management, including tree planting, could offset half of the current carbon emissions on earth over the next decade. The University of Utah Forestry Extension summarizes a few of Dr. Houghton’s management tactics thusly:

1. Halt tropical deforestation. . . .

2. Decrease the clearing of forests for development.

3. Allow cleared areas to regrow, especially with woody shrubs and trees.

4. Use the latest forestry research to plant trees strategically in areas where they are likely to flourish, with minimal inputs while maximizing their carbon storage potential. Growing trees that are native to an area increases the likelihood that they will succeed and create the strongest possible carbon sink.

5. Plant and retain trees in urban areas; the values of urban trees are financial, ecological, and palliative.

These options seem practical. Trees are good for mental health, and pursuing logical, linear arguments may be good for mental health as well. But as with any argument that puts the multiple and nebulous concerns of health, logic, or trees before money, someone is bound to come in and mess with this linearity. And perhaps it is too linear to serve as an effective plan to stave off climate change. When a proposed bill called the Trillion Trees Act gained the public’s attention, a coalition of ninety-five environmental groups sent a letter to Congress opposing it as the “worst kind of greenwashing and a complete distraction from urgently needed reductions in fossil fuel pollution.”

The absurdity of numbers. To use the word “trillion” seems absurd. And even a trillion of one idea is not going to help 100 percent. The numbers, drawn like lines in the sand, snake around and away without our permission. The 350 parts of carbon dioxide per million parts of air, identified by scientists as the we-can-go-this-far-no-further line, have risen to 416 per million, where things stand today. The air is turned into countable parts. A trillion tons of ice, lost. x is the number of species lost due to anthropogenic loss minus the baseline extinction rate of one species per every one million species per year. Numbers do a great job of abstracting, which is anathema to good storytelling. And although Houghton and others now study deeply the connection between forests and climate, the information itself is hard to read. The connections are not always linear. Forests sink carbon, but they can also contribute to it. A 2021 study published in Science Advances discovered that at higher temperatures, forests will exhale more carbon dioxide than they inhale. Houghton contributed to an additional study that described how the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases generated by the burning, road-making, fire-making, and mining development of the Amazon rainforest severely reduces the amount of CO2 the Amazon absorbs. The ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, but the more CO2 it absorbs, the more acidic it becomes. The amount of CO2 we need to sink, even if we could digest the gigantic numbers, does not guarantee a permanent solution. The numbers shift, and it will take a trillion scientists to quantify every shift, or, a trillion stories to tell the story of the million parts of air. 

In Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013),Timothy Morton names climate change a “hyperobject”—which he defines as “an entity of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that it defeats traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.”  Humans cannot wrap their minds around the enormity of the planet, its numerous species, its billions of interconnected relationships, the rate of geological change, the rate of anthropogenic change. The nearly-impossible-to-conceive big numbers that climate change engenders force us to flatten or even discount the idea, because we cannot conceive of the fantastically large number of carbon parts or the sheer amount of carbon the ocean must store. We have to resist making the story easy, resist flattening it into one cure-all response or one there’s-nothing-to-be-done-about-it story. We must embrace all the stories we can muster. 

The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in “The Danger of a Single Story,” a popular TED Talk, narrates example after example about how one version of a story can quash others. As a child, she read books about kids with blond hair and blue eyes whose primary fruit was apples. Thus, at first, she wrote books about kids with blond hair and blue eyes who ate apples. It wasn’t until she was introduced to books written by Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye that she understood how many stories existed and could exist—ones with kids who eat mangoes instead of apples. One story is dangerous. “But to insist on the negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me,” Adichie says. The numbers, as absurdly abundant as they may be, each deserve their own story. 

Haraway argues that one of the good reasons to stay with the trouble is that multiple potentials present themselves instead of one-size-fits-all solutions. Along with considering how the Anthropocene streamlined the complex story of ecologies, Haraway also wants us to reconsider how the Capitalocene, as Haraway defines our current capitalist epoch differently from the broader “Anthropocene,” has driven us down an ever-narrowing path. Haraway insists that to understand this narrow path, and to have any hope to blast it wide open, we have to understand the long line of forward marching that fomented this shrinking narrative. Make it complicated, she argues. “Coal and the steam engine did not determine the story, and besides the dates are all wrong, not because one has to go back to the last ice age, but because one has to at least include the great market and commodity reworldings of the long sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the current era, even if we think (wrongly) that we can remain Euro-centered in thinking about ‘globalizing’ transformations shaping the Capitalocene.” It’s really Wall Street. Jobs versus environmentalism. Complicate the issue enough so that the line of logic pits oak against plumber, maple against mechanic. Solutions are easy until people’s livelihoods become involved. 




We chose the house with the land scraped free of living things. Perhaps the lack of trees in the new neighborhood did make an impact on our mental health. Tree Farm Lane, on the other side of the block from our house, may have been haunted by the ghosts of previously farmed trees, just like the word “lake” haunted the street we lived on before. Silver Lake didn’t denote a lake but a reservoir used to irrigate the cemetery lawn behind the house we were leaving. The road we moved to—Stone Hill—was also a half-truth. I’m sure there were stones. And there was a short hill. But it would be hard to submit that the hill was actually made of stones.

Still, who am I to decide what’s a sign and what is not? Perhaps Silver Lake signaled a shimmery reflective life force. Perhaps it signaled corpse swamp. A lack of trees may affect mental health. I can see our neighborhood claiming that as its diagnosis. My friend Linda died right after she graduated from high school in a car crash, driving back from Mexico, high on cocaine. Helen drunk-drove her car into a wall. All of the families on Tree Farm, except the Davises, who were falconers and owned a hot air balloon, and the Stevens, who were Mormon, experienced divorce. Our side of the block had more Mormons, thus, fewer divorces; Tree Farm, short on religion, tall on divorce and adventure, did not go to the LDS church. In describing where we went wrong, my mother and I glommed on to these either/or propositions. If we ’d moved to Tree Farm, we would have fit in, even after my parents’ divorce. And I wouldn’t have had the babysitter I did.

After I failed the Gifted and Talented test, it became clear that school was no longer any kind of Eden. I turned to the neighborhood to bolster my sense of self. I made friends with the kids on our street. Anna and Mary and the babysitter’s sister. They were younger, but my friends at school had all been sequestered into the safety of the confidence-strengthening Gifted and Talented program. I was on my own in a new neighborhood, in the same school I ’d begged my parents not to move away from, but now without those gifted people who had been my friends in the second grade, who were now loaded on a bus for a field trip to the Hansen Planetarium without me. So I might as well hang out with the kids across the street. We could ride our bikes, pretend they were horses, feed them grass from the lawns our fathers mowed in perfect tracks. We could trace the lines where the wheels crushed the blades. And so I lived out the predestination without question. I didn’t stay with the trouble. I didn’t interrogate the trouble. I looked for trouble. I was on the wrong path and there was, at least according to the story my mother and I told each other later, no turning back.




To worry about the path not taken is to worry about the individual self. What could I have done differently? My choices made or broke my life. I either did a great job or I totally screwed this up. American individualism insists that it’s up to you to make the correct choice, as if it’s all our fault. As if “all” is ever how things go. We have been on this single path for a long time. As early as 1859, John Tyndall studied how gases block heat radiation and thus may affect the global climate. In 1896, Swedish physical chemist Svante Arrhenius published a study that showed how changes in the amount of CO2 may affect climate. If there were only two choices, we chose a particular path long ago. But since in America, individual choice rules, we can’t imagine the immense grouping of carbon dioxide particles accumulating in the sky, we can only see how high the speedometer in our own car goes. We have a hard time seeing how the layers multiply. The carbon content in the atmosphere has been drawing its own line in the sand for centuries. Humans accuse: pathetic fallacy! Don’t imbue human characteristics into things! But some lines do originate organically. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change keeps drawing lines in the sand. Two degrees Celsius is one of them. If the average global temperature increases more than that, we will trigger the atmosphere into positive feedback loops that will melt the reflective white ice caps into a heat-absorbing ocean that will warm the atmosphere even more. Now we reshape the surface of the planet in ways we can barely imagine. Bill McKibben carved a line in stone when he named his nonprofit 350.org, suggesting that we should try to return to that many parts per million to stave off the worst effects of climate change. We hit 350 in the nineties. We hit 400 in 2016. Human progress implies a forward trajectory. We aren’t so good at going backwards. 

We weren’t supposed to surpass 400. We were supposed to get out of the car, put down the keys, and get on our bicycles. We were supposed to drive the sun. We were supposed to blow truly reasonable amounts of refrigerant on the ice sheets. But we have been in the car since before cars were invented—throwing exhaust long down the road. Just because we are on a path, is forward-with-carbon the only way we can imagine to go? 




When we moved from the house on Silver Lake to the house on Stone Hill so I could still attend Canyon View, the land behind our house was empty of buildings. An LDS wardhouse would be built on that bare ground eventually, but for now, dirt and a small group of trees occupied those couple of acres. I dragged my stuffed dog behind me, pulling him by a piece of yarn that I ’d borrowed from my mom’s pink wicker sewing kit. His face was flat—he must have been a schnauzer—whose great gift was that towing him by back or feet or face felt equally the same. From my house to this field, where I was building a nest of a house for myself, I took my stuffed bunny, gray cat, Winnie the Pooh, and plain old teddy bear. The dog I could walk with my homemade leash.

I was safe from both the babysitter and the story of how I got into trouble with the babysitter in the wilderness beyond my mother’s kitchen window. Three small trees had been spared the bulldozer—apple trees, although they were barren, as far as I knew, for the years that the field was a field, before it was bricked into the Mormon wardhouse. But the Giant Schnauz and I hung from their branches, I by my knees, he by his yarn, like overlarge, not-so-fertile fruit. 

My mom could not see me from the kitchen window when we, my stuffed dog and I, made ourselves at home in the tree. It was as private as a bedroom, but with the added pleasures of ladybugs, potato bugs, and a climbing apparatus. I began bringing house-stuffs out to the glen: a ceramic bowl with a squirrel for a handle that I had borrowed from my great-grandmother’s house. A squirrel wanted to be in the wilderness, I rationalized. A bottle of cough syrup for my doll, Amber. I had already spilled a tablespoon or three on my brand-new blue carpet. I could hide what was left in the bottle out here. My mother wouldn’t realize if she were to vacuum under the rug that I used to cover the stain that I ’d been the spiller of the cough syrup. She definitely couldn’t see me as I pretended to give birth to the baby doll Amber. I didn’t need her anyway. I had the stuffed animals to watch. I didn’t want my mom to see me like that, pretending, pushing, half-naked in the short and scrubby trees. 


From a house, one can only see one or two or even a hundred trees gone. It takes a drone or a satellite to enable seeing where the Amazon rainforest used to be. It takes hundreds of humans to take out the trees and then hundreds of humans to band together to create the technology to rise above the earth to get a picture of what the humans have done with all the trees. We keep sharing the pictures, but so far it’s only the individual, not the collective heart that breaks. 

Perhaps humans have been falling, failing the planet since the beginning. Perhaps the Genesis story suggests that the fruit not to be picked was a sign that not all the fruit is meant for humans. Not everything the planet has to give can be eaten or burned or turned into an Apple watch. We’ve come, most of us, to feel invulnerable to natural forces, which makes us unlike everything else on the planet. Our usefulness is not species interdependent, except for maybe the millions of microorganisms we house in our guts. We aren’t like the fruit bats who ingest figs, then expel the seeds, sowing new fig trees as they fly. We aren’t like oxpecker birds that eat ticks from zebras’ coats, or the Colombian lesserblack tarantula that shares its burrow with the dotted humming frog of South America. But you have to let yourself be vulnerable to share your home with strangers, and open vulnerability isn’t a well-rewarded human characteristic. 

What could make us humans re-enter the mutualistic ecosystems of the world? Perhaps it would be to share vulnerability. To tell a story you didn’t really want to tell. To worry two turning points until the idea of turning point itself becomes suspect. To know that the story isn’t a good one—the babysitter should not have interfered and his interference forced this single narrative—that my life would be forever told through the lens of sexual abuse. 


There is plenty of blame to go around. Old growth forests are pulped for toilet paper, but everyone uses toilet paper. The first coal stove in London, pumping visible carbon into the sky, was the envy of the neighborhood. Can you blame the Londoners for keeping warm? Can you blame the neighbors for keeping up with the Jones’s relationship with the Gas Light and Coke Company of Horseferry Road? I certainly can’t. I’m not sitting in the dark, etching this into rock with flint. My Apple laptop is glowing brightly with the ghosts of dead trees. It’s not so much the usefulness of technology, though, as it is the pattern. What’s next is never off the beaten path toward more use. My favorite stories are the ones that suggest a different path where the humans are useful, not just users. See the video of the team cutting the netting that trapped the humpback whale. See the foresters hanging plastic patches steeped in pheromones on trees to keep bark beetles at bay. See the neighbor take in the fox with his broken foot, the raven with her clipped wing, the baby squirrel running alone across the street. 

As Haraway said, the story of the climate crisis didn’t begin with the steam engine. It began with the idea of markets. It began with managing scarcity and abundance. The story line of climate change is the story line of humans. If we’ve crossed the lines and marked the inevitable path, shouldn’t we humans recognize the path will end? Do we have enough time to circle back and circle back again? What explodes a linear narrative? A thousand cross-weaving stories. 


For two years, my mother didn’t know about the babysitter. She also didn’t know about my fort in the empty lot, but for a few scraggly trees, where I built my own adult-approximate life with Amber and my stuffed animals. I found an old tablecloth in the basement storage room. Yellow and orange, it matched nothing in our new house on Stone Hill, so I was pretty sure she wouldn’t notice if I made it a bedspace for me and Amber, as we recovered from her complicated birth. This was before the Interference. Perhaps I was already on the verge of writing another story.

What if my mom had known about Amber and my stuffed animals? What if she ’d watched me give pretend birth to my pretend baby? Would that have created another story or just another blip on the weirdness scale—a creativity measured neither by standardized Gifted and Talented tests nor standardized tests for children headed in the wrong direction?

If I had told my mother either story, would that have opened another pathway? 

By the time you notice that the path you’re on is the wrong one, it’s too late. If you’re judging paths and moments as singular intersections, your path is destined. Every change in your body, every mental health issue will be shaped and be stunted ex post facto. The moment you notice the path, you were already exhilarating toward the fall. Perhaps by the time the Sexual Interference happened, it was already too late. By the time the Industrial Interference happened, the sun was already, through the gases darkly, looking a little bit orange. Perhaps now is a good time to stop talking about the path and start walking. The point of the going was to get somewhere. Isn’t there a chance there is somewhere new to go? Some new trouble with which to stay? 




The elastic in my tube top marked a red line across my chest. Do not go here, it should have read. Or perhaps he misunderstood the line. Perhaps the elastic itself said, “stretch me.” When the summers grow longer, boys wear shorts deep into October. It doesn’t read climate change, it reads, “chance to skateboard longer.” When the line of the tank top is revealed, perhaps it’s already too late to change what the line is signaling. Now, our only choice is to adapt. Maybe it’s time to say, I meant for you to see this line, this skin. Maybe the line my underwear marked around my waist is another overdetermined sign. Maybe it’s raining in the Sahara now. Maybe it’s a hundred degrees in Alaska. Maybe the lack of pubic hair doesn’t say no. Instead, maybe it says, speed up, let’s move into a positive feedback loop. The chest growths, just nubs, turn into full breasts. The hips get wider to accommodate a fourteen-year-old boy and his semen. A real Amber. Plastic was the substance we were born to shun. The cranes that used to migrate by the Platte River every summer flew over this year and the next year and the next year. My friend Runar, who lives in Reykjavik, says snow that fell by the foot fifteen years ago falls by the inch now. 

We adapt faster than the dinosaurs. We’ll get through this, or out of this, or off of this, or off of me. A strong, singular story line forces us to adapt in a singular way. Perhaps, if we listen to more than one story, the choices will become multiple. 




I live among the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forests. The ponderosas bear the most extreme climates. They grow so tall and so slowly you might miss their mathematics: in the winter, it often snows a hundred and fifty inches a year. The snow collects in layers on the trees like Kaibab, Coconino, Navajo sandstones collect in the canyons nearby. The snow falls in chunks. It melts before the branches break. Seventy-mile-an-hour winds bend them like Gumby dolls, flinging snow like catapults. And then it doesn’t rain for six months. And then it rains, thanks to monsoon storms, six weeks of water to last the trees’ needs for six months. And then they lose their orange needles in the fall, sinking nitrogen and carbon back into the ground to feed themselves later. Trees never draw lines in the sand to signal a singular future. They say, I am subject to a lot of different lines: fire lines, chains of saws, marching troops of beetles crawling up and into my bark. I am vulnerable, but I can take it if I’m given enough time. Trees need to adapt only slowly. They were born knowing there was always more than one pathway up the hill. 




Everything can change. Even the story. Even the lines your mother demarcated as turning points. Two years later, when I was returned to Gifted and Talented in the fifth grade, they didn’t call it Discovery anymore. I didn’t go on field trips. In fact, if I wanted to participate, I had to stay after school. Jeff and Jill from the old program joined me. In fifth grade, we read The Communist Manifesto and 1984. Those books were the first books where I would be introduced to another narrative, although both were still based in Western thought. They prepared me for darker stories and ways to think about them. I would be ready for the next line transgressed. I would say goodbye to alpine flowers. I would learn, thanks to Toni Morrison, that trees love you but the boys sitting on their branches want to keep you from becoming you. So they jump out of the tree to chase you, to remind you that flesh begets flesh. They drink your milk to remind you that you aren’t a tree. I ’d rather be a tree, but I was made to adapt quickly. Perhaps I was being made ready for these particles per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. Each particle deserves its own story. There is more than one. And what good stories about alpine flowers and apple trees I still plan to tell. Not all stories are human ones. Some of the best aren’t even written on paper; they’re told by the trees themselves. Some pinecones need fire for the seed to germinate. Many humans didn’t know that story, or about the relationship between fungus and tree roots, or that the climate was so vulnerable. They didn’t know that being vulnerable is dangerous and hard and something to share, that it was something we already share with the trees. Maybe going wrong isn’t the trouble and going wrong not just once or twice is. Maybe you have to go wrong and wrong again and wrong again until the path is too convoluted to tease into a straight line, until the stories overlap like roots on soil, branches on sky, branches circling back, reflecting the webby pattern of their roots. There certainly are “if onlies.” But there isn’t just one. Or two. And it’s never too late to try out a different story line. Borrow from the rain and make as many stories as there are raindrops, at least until the rain dries up. 


Nicole Walker is the author of several nonfiction books, most recently Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh and Navigating Disaster (Torrey House Press, 2021); The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet, with David Carlin (Rose Metal Press, 2019); and Sustainability: A Love Story (Mad Creek Books, 2018). Barrow Street Press published her poetry collection This Noisy Egg in 2010. She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story (2020) with Sean Prentiss and Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (2013) with Margot Singer.