Inundation

By OLIVE AMDUR 

I had one recurring nightmare as a child: I am standing in the dry bed of a creek looking upstream, the sun shining and the stones warm on the bottoms of my feet. Suddenly, a roaring wave rushes toward me around a bend and I have no choice but to be swept along with it. The water drags earth from the river banks until it is so thick with sediment it has turned the color of Swiss Miss.  

In the nightmare I watch water sweep over the small house where I live, rising past bushes around the exterior and flowers in window boxes. It rises past the screen door and the metal gutters attached to the roof. It rises over the weather vane, and over the chimney, and then the house is gone and all that remains in my line of sight is flood.

When the house disappears in the water, I have both the idea that my home is gone and that it isn’t. The water might recede and reveal everything inside perfectly intact, or it might not. This is what scares me: the not-knowing whether or not I have a place—a home—to return to, the prospect of being stranded, this uncertainty. These fears stay with me after the nightmare ends. 

***

Colin and I are side by side on the stack of sleeping pads in a friend’s living room in northern Utah when I first see the video. The churning Yellowstone River surges over its bank and tears apart the foundations of a two-story wooden building. The structure floats quickly down the river, staircases still attached to the second-floor entrances and glass windows intact, then disappears around a bend a hundred yards downstream. The sky is a bright and clear blue; the sun shines. 

I lean over and show Colin the video, zooming in at the moment the building slips from land. He watches it once with me, then turns away, and I watch the two minutes again. “Employee housing in the National Park,” I read aloud from the description. Then the next line, “Yellowstone closed today for the first time in over thirty years.” We fall asleep on the makeshift mattress, the image of sweeping water stuck in my head.

Two days later, we start the two-hundred-mile drive north from Logan, Utah, to Grand Teton National Park. It takes three and a half hours on a good day, but all of the roads have been unusually busy since the closure of Yellowstone—crowded with cars full of people changing plans or making new ones because of the flood. We drive alongside these cars across the Snake River into Wyoming and slowly up Route 191. 

There is construction on the last stretch of highway into Jackson, and we wait in line for our turn to move along the one-lane road. I put my feet on the dashboard and open Cat’s Cradle where we left off. I read aloud while Colin watches for a signal on the road. We have been taking turns reading and each have our own versions of characters’ voices. My throat gets dry doing mine, and I begin to overheat as the sun beats through the windshield. 

Colin laughs at my accents, then digs for a water bottle in the bag we keep them in. He takes a sip and passes it to me. I take a sip and keep reading. 

By the time we reach Wyoming we have been on the road for two weeks, driven nearly three thousand miles, and developed routines to keep our lives put together in the car. We read aloud and listen to podcasts to keep ourselves awake. We pile our shoes in the wells behind our seats and the things we need most frequently by the doors. We pack and repack every bag, crate, and backpack into a designated spot in the trunk.

When we stop at gas stations, one of us fills water while the other stands by the pump, and if it is afternoon and we’re only halfway through a drive, we stock up on Coke cans and iced coffee. The passenger watches for deer at dusk and the driver decides when we close and open the windows. We are quiet most mornings and turn whatever we’re listening to off when the views are beautiful. We try to make a home in the patterns of our movement. 

Suddenly it is our turn, and we bounce down the unpaved road behind a pickup truck. We emerge around a bend and see the construction crew. A backhoe, a bulldozer, and a few men in orange vests stand by a pile of large rocks on the shoulder just above a partial mud slide down to the river, preparing to build a riprap buttress along its banks. The river runs the same brown color as in the video of the Yellowstone: this and the traffic are constant reminders of the flood. 

***

I have been reading a book this summer called The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. It is an ethnography of the matsutake mushroom, one of the most valuable mushrooms in the world and one of the fungus species most capable of thriving in altered ecosystems. The matsutake grows wild like a weed in forests disturbed by pollution, logging, forestry, construction, unstable weather, and migration pattern changes. As Tsing puts it, “they are willing to put up with some of the environmental messes humans have made.” 

The matsutake is considered a delicacy in Japan and is first praised in an eighth century poem for its smell. It began growing in large quantities on mountains near Nara and Kyoto, after a need for wood fuel to build temples and iron forges caused widespread deforestation. The matsutake’s  best and most common host—the tree it thrives on or near—is the red pine, which grows quickly in the sunlight and mineral soils created by human disturbance in forests. As deforestation spread and the matsutake sprung up across Japan, it gained value as a gift, a luxury product, and a cultural symbol. 

Now, after Japan’s turn to fossil fuels in place of logging and reduced red pine growth, most matsutake grow in the forests of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. The mushroom’s life in these mountains is what Tsing is most interested in. She writes about the communities of mushroom pickers, traders, and sorters living at or near Forest Service sites, about the systems of global trade organized around matsutake, about capitalism and the climate crisis, and about what we might learn from the mushroom. 

Tsing has a phrase for the way the matsutake grows: “in conditions of precarity.” It grows in unbalanced or uncertain ecosystems. It survives by entangling with the red pines and the mineral soils in its surroundings. It thrives as it learns, constantly, to be open to changing or altered home environments. “Thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible,” Tsing writes. 

*** 

We drive out of the canyon past a long line of cars and campers waiting in line on the other side of the one-lane road. There are two or three RVs with photos of Yosemite plastered on their sides, all rented from a company called Cruise America. Jokingly, I ask Colin where he thinks they’re coming from. He peers up the road in the loose direction of Yellowstone National Park and laughs. 

Of all the nights we have spent on the road so far, only two of them have been at last-minute campsites. For the months leading up to the trip, Colin and I tried many times to plan. With our starting point in New York, end point in the Canadian Rockies, and three weeks of days to work with, we sat in front of our computers with maps open trying to finalize our itinerary. We finally decided on a loose route with stops in towns and cities where we knew people: Pittsburgh, Saint Louis, Dolores, Logan. 

We thought it would be easier this way, and in many ways it is. We sleep under blankets on futons and pull-out couches instead of in our sleeping bags. We shower, store food in refrigerators, cook real meals, do laundry. We can spend time with friends and family and return to the car refreshed. 

But more than refreshed, what I feel acutely many of the mornings we leave these places is a deep yearning for home. Not for any home in particular, but a yearning—so sharp it often borders on envy—for stillness, for settledness, for stability, for permanence, for a place to begin homing myself in, for a place I know I will return to. 

There are particular things that prompt this yearning: the tenderness with which Colin’s grandmother has me clip mint leaves from her garden into our iced tea, an array of birthday cards taped to a refrigerator, a bookshelf lined with the newly combined libraries of friends who just moved in together, the scrapbook of those same friends with pictures from each year they’ve loved each other and a photo on the last filled page with the caption our first apartment. 

Mostly, though, it is prompted when Colin and I pack up, say goodbyes, and return to the car. In the stillness of the front seat, I am flooded with all the feelings I have been avoiding. Like that this car and all its piled things may be the most permanent home Colin and I ever share. And that in a couple of weeks I move back into my last college dorm room on a campus that has only just begun to feel like home. That my belongings are scattered between this room and rooms in my parents’ house and that when I visit that house it feels sometimes like visiting. Home means many different things to me now. 

In my childhood nightmare about the flood I am afraid of losing the place I associate with home and of being left without that grounding. In that nightmare the house submerged beneath the river water is the only home I can think of, the only one I feel I have. This is no longer the case. Now that home means different things to me it is harder to lose but harder also to locate, and hold steady. I have begun to happen upon the feeling I am home—to be surprised by it, to encounter it in unexpected places and with new people. It is new to me to have to move between these. 

When Colin and I sat down with our computers, our planning sentences began with phrases like “let’s” or “we should,” “maybe we could” or “how about.” Most of all, we looked at maps and routes and said, “what if.” This is the way the questions we are asking about the next months and years of our lives begin too. Picking stops and planning the details of the trip felt to me like practice for these bigger decisions.

Finally we said, “What if we take it day by day?” On the road we try to let ourselves fall asleep with uncertainty, wake up with the things we are feeling, and move slowly through the decisions of each day. I have tried to settle into the homes we have been welcomed into and move on when it’s time to keep exploring. In my childhood nightmare, as I am swept down the river, there are moments where the fear abates. I am just floating and moving. I don’t know what comes next. This is the sensation I have been trying to remember on the road. 

“One value of keeping precarity in mind is that it makes us remember that changing with circumstances is the stuff of survival,” Tsing writes. Every day in the car I try to make myself learn from precarity like Tsing does: from our constant movement and shifting environments, from my floating and adapting. Though there are days I don’t feel like I’m learning, there are more when I do. 

***

Jackson Hole comes into view once we turn away from the river. We round a traffic circle onto a street lined with stores, avoid the center of town and keep driving towards Grand Teton National Park. Our plan was to hike in and stay the night at a campsite in one of the Teton canyons, but it is late afternoon already and we are still half an hour away. Colin drives quickly past a row of rustic inns, and the land begins to widen. Buildings become scarce, separated by fields of long alpine grass and wildflowers. We are still on 191, now just fifty miles south of an entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and electronic signs appear on both sides of the road every mile, flashing two messages: YELLOWSTONE CLOSED DUE TO FLOODING, NO ENTRY. 

The latest update issued by the National Parks Service says that the northern part of Yellowstone National Park will likely remain closed for a long time while crews evaluate roads and bridges and assist remaining groups of campers from the backcountry. The announcement includes more pictures of the damage. The river has carved new paths through swaths of flat land and torn chunks of concrete from paved roads; mud and earth have slipped down the side of low hills, tree trunks and branches lie in piles at bends in the stream. 

The sky in all the photos is as blue and clear as the sky we have driven under all the way through Wyoming, so blue and clear it is difficult to remember that there is so much damage and displacement nearby. But we begin to see evidence at the visitor’s center in Moose, when we struggle to find a parking spot and walk into a bustling lobby. Children crowd in front of posters with bison and grizzly bears on them, parents read brochures about Teton park activities, and rangers stand at kiosks taking questions from the long line of people in hiking boots. 

Colin joins the line to ask about a backcountry camping pass and I search the gift shop for a postcard to mail my dad for Father’s Day. Yellowstone and the Tetons are so close together there are a few rows with images from both on the spinning rack, and even some of the river. In those pictures it is slow and clear, confined to its bed and nowhere near the sediment color it is now. I pick one with the full Teton range on it, taken after the wildflowers have bloomed but before the snow has melted from each of the peaks. I write my message, then find Colin in the crowd. 

A ranger in a mesh vest tells us that since the Yellowstone closure, the Teton park has been busier than ever. If we hike far enough in on one trail we’ll find a site to sleep at, but it’s late afternoon, none of our supplies are packed, and we don’t want to hike in the dark.

We sit on a carved wooden bench talking through our options while families and groups of hikers wander around the airy space. The mountains are visible through a wide window, and I watch people stop and look at them, as if surprised to find the range there. Or maybe as if relieved to find that it still is. 

***

The precarity Tsing writes about in The Mushroom at the End of the World is a precarity of home in the largest sense: the precarity of the home that is this earth and its disrupted ecosystems. This is most of the reason I wanted to read it. Much of the work I have done in school these past few years has revolved around climate change and crisis. The sorts of uncertainty I am reminded of in this work—floods and heat waves, sea level rise and air pollution, forced migration and unlivable lands—are the kinds I have to, and am lucky to be able to, keep at a low hum for my own survival. 

But when I use that “what if” to talk about my future they are there. Every question I might picture an answer to—of where I might live and who I might live with, how I will work and find family, or even simple ones like what the weather might be when I wake up in the morning—stops feeling answerable.

Tsing begins with the matsutake because it models a survival reliant on the plants, animals, people, and things in its surroundings. Without logging, there wouldn’t be minerals in the soil or sun for the pine trees to grow, and without the pines there would be no matsutake growth. Tsing draws this out even further. Without the matsutake, the communities of pickers and sorters living in the forests of the Cascades would have found no community with one another, nor any livelihood. Without the pickers and sorters, the matsutake patches wouldn’t regenerate and allow for new growth.

Matsutake thrive in ecosystems devastated by wildfire or filled with invasive species, ecosystems with chemical levels altered by pollution in the atmosphere or forest habitats diminished by human construction. The matsutake and those who interact with it survive in precarious conditions—and grow in uncertainty—by leaning on and learning from each other.

In this I have found first a planetary and then a really immediate personal hope. 

***

Instead of sleeping deep in the park we take the advice of the ranger and decide to car camp at a site up the main road. We drive to Blacktail Butte, known for its climbing spots. The parking lot is full here too, though smaller. There are cars from Michigan, Utah, New York, Montana, and a van from Quebec, each with bumper stickers from all over the place, and the trunks are filled with things: suitcases, sleeping bags, backpacks. Everyone is on the move. 

On the way to the climbing wall at Upper Blacktail Butte, we walk through a field of long grass and a forest patch of old pine trees. The path winds up the side of a steep hill, over thick roots pushing up through the dirt, across a field of granite chunks, then narrows by the vertical rock. We hike higher on a thin staircase fashioned out of branches and put our bags down.

Colin climbs first, and I hold him on the rope, pulling more tightly on the hard parts and giving him slack on the easier ones. Then I climb, noticing on the way up the smoothness of the pieces of granite that serve as the natural holds, created by years of peoples’ hands and climbing shoes in the same spots mine are now. 

At the top of the route there is a partial view and I hang from the rope looking out over the Teton valley. The low evening light has settled and the mountains in the distance glow blue. The sky is still clear and the air still, but the steady sound of cars remains audible, even from this high and even in a light breeze. I hear someone laugh from a different part of the crag. 

***

We return to the car, like we always do, at sunset. We set up folding chairs in the parking lot, open cans of cider, and watch the outline of the mountain range sharpen against the darkening sky. I pass Colin a bag of potato chips, he takes a few, and then passes it back to me. 

What I have liked more than anything these last few weeks in the car, and what I am trying to hold, isn’t the organized piling of our things in the backseat or the exploring states and cities I’ve never been to before. It isn’t the climbing or the hiking or the wandering. What I have liked more than anything is that I have had someone to share this constant movement and uncertainty with. It is having someone to lean on and into as environments shift. Someone to wade through routines with. Someone to sit next to in the front seat while the traffic stalls and the landscape rushes by through the car windows. 

The strangest and most ominous part of my recurring nightmare is that when I am standing in the creek bed watching the wave crash towards me and when I am watching the water seep over my house, I am aware that I am completely alone. I don’t see or hear anyone. I’m not sure I even think of anyone. My mind is blank and solitary. I realize that when I say “home” now, of the many different things I mean most of them are connected to people. Colin and I say this to each other—this is home—but I forget to let that guide me in the moments I am struggling with uncertainty. I forget that leaning on and with other people—things, animals, environments too—is how we survive.

There is another definition Tsing gives for precarity: “the condition of being vulnerable to others.” 

This is one of those days I feel myself leaning on and learning from Tsing. I watch the steady stream of cars rush along the road back towards Jackson, past the Elk Refuge and those electric signs still blinking with warnings. I imagine people inside looking out their windows at the landscape: people stranded after the floods, people with changed plans, people with no plans. Everyone is watching the June sun set slowly over the mountains like we are, sharing this environment for a moment. 

When it nears dark all I see are headlights and taillights appearing and receding in both directions, heading home or farther from it. We finish our ciders and Colin and I repack the car. 

 

Olive Amdur is a senior at Amherst College and The Common‘s Thomas E. Wood ’61 Fellow. 

Inundation

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