This is not about the novel coronavirus, or the quarantine, or the strange new anguish we’re masking behind 10 X 6 rectangles of cotton fabric. It’s not about that, not directly, because it started long before the first fever in Wuhan. It started with stars. Did you know that the word corona means something suggesting a crown, such as the outermost part of the atmosphere of a star? My granddaughter comes from the stars. That’s what she tells me, because that’s what I tell her. Stardust floats through us, scientists say, tethering us to the universe and rebuilding our human bodies over and over again during our lifetimes.
At two years old now, my granddaughter’s body is small and sturdy, taut round belly over unsteady legs, careful hands with ten gentle fingers shining out toward everything, including me, where I now stand six feet away, leaning forward on the porch step toward the edge of a trembling empty space between us. “Hold me, Nana,” she says. It’s funny that we speak of emptiness as if it is always cold. What of the corrugated white heat rising upward from unoccupied stretches of black tarmac, white desert, endless hayfields? They say this new virus did not result specifically from climate change, but it does foretell of the future pandemics we will endure in a world destabilized by rising temperatures.
I saw stars up close thirty years ago, when I first held my own new baby, naked and pink. My body—split wide open to something unknowable—whooshed up from the hospital bed into the sky, above the sticks and bricks of the city, then hundreds of thousands of miles higher, where the last wisps of Earth air form the tines of our geocorona, that luminous crown shining into deep space, far beyond the orbit of the moon. There, hanging weightless in the void, I saw it: our pale blue world under its papery blanket of light. Like the astronauts who first walked the moon, I ached then for the smallness of our planet, spinning alone in the dark.
I named my baby Sophia for the shapes of those sounds in my mouth: the ballooning hope of O, the shush of S against the palate. She was born in 1990, the year of the second world climate conference in Geneva and the first report of the International Panel on Climate Change, which declared that the world was warming and would likely keep warming. A year earlier, the Worldwatch Institute had proclaimed the 1990s “the turnaround decade,” the point at which we would either stop polluting or face an environmental disaster as devastating as nuclear war. In their State of the World 1989 report, the Institute said that by many measures, time was running out.
But my own small world was green and unseasonably cool, bursting with ripe cucumbers ready for skinning and soaking in vinegar. Refrigerator pickles would usher me into new motherhood, I thought. By her second summer, Sophie loved the black walnut tree outside our kitchen. She named the squirrels who ran around its trunk Carl and Sugar. She delighted in their antics. When those trees dropped their walnuts into the yard, the sap shone black in the grass and stuck to our bare feet. Potion, Sophie called it, after the fairy tales she loved.
Soon after Sophie’s birth came the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—but the United States blocked all calls for serious action. Still, our porch door let in a cool breeze that summer, and all the summers after. We visited Lake Superior, the coldest and deepest fresh water on earth, to tease waves and skip rocks. A brother arrived, and then a sister. With three children hand in hand, we crossed the Mississippi Headwaters at its narrowest point. At the Gulf of Mexico, where sea swallows river, the children scoured the beach at low tide as stars sparkled on the dark surface of the water like a spray of sugar.
The world is beautiful, I said, as sea levels crept up and coastal flooding increased and the West Coast burned and heatwaves killed hundreds across the Midwest and Northeast. Under the pines of Itasca, we toasted marshmallows over an open flame and made a circle of our linked arms around the tall white pines. In winter, we built both men and angels out of the snow. We sang Christmas carols under the night sky. The world is good, I said, as Antarctic ice shelves broke apart and East African drought worsened and storm surges and tsunamis threatened a quarter of the world’s people. We hunkered down and drank from steaming cups of myths and folklore, imagining ourselves east of the sun and west of the moon, riding the red mare’s back, crying for Icarus’s wings. There are no monsters, I promised, as monster hurricanes battered the United States and deadly heat swept across India and Europe. We watched for elder trees, the gateway guardians, because if you sleep under an elder tree, you dream other worlds, fairy worlds. We are safe, I said, as the 1990s drew toward a close and storms, floods, drought, and fire caused record human and economic losses worldwide.
An unthinkable thing happened at a high school in Columbine, Colorado.
People became terrified of the turn of the millennium, hoarding duct tape and canned goods. There was a thought the world would end. Which all things do. Including stars. Some stars die by simply fading away. Others die with titanic explosions, called supernovae. A supernova can shine as brightly as an entire galaxy of billions of normal stars. As the world woke up to the first quiet-seeming morning of the year 2000, my family broke apart and scraps of who we had been floated up and out like embers. For years, we chased those embers like fireflies, trying to capture them in jars and return them to something that no longer existed.
Anxiety is a feeling of looming uncertainty. Everything looks brighter in the morning, I told my children as they grew into adults. Don’t borrow trouble from the future, I said, as millions of homes blew over or flooded and the rich built luxury doomsday bunkers for themselves and white men kept shooting at schools and police kept shooting at black men and boys and the powerful stood idly by. In 2016, the hottest year in Earth’s history, the United States elected a fascist television star as president. He immediately withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. Meanwhile, the United Nations warned we had exactly twelve years to limit climate change catastrophe, saying that children born now may live in a world four degrees hotter, with disastrous consequences.
This is when my granddaughter drew her first breath.
To protect my her, I planted a small elderberry tree outside our kitchen door. Elder wood has a strong outer bark and soft inner core, easily removed to make flutes. The oil of elder wood is used in blessing rituals. Folklore says its bark, leaves, flowers, and berries will protect us from attack. When ignited, elder burns hot and fast. Some say to burn it is taboo.
When she is still just one year old, I boost my granddaughter up onto the kitchen counter so that she can reach to hang an elder leaf above the window. Not the branch though. To bring the wood inside the house could be bad luck. “I come from the stars,” she tells me. Stars burn for billions and billions of years. But they do not burn forever. Like us, stars are born, live, and die. People say when we look at the night sky, we’re seeing into the past, long-travelled light from stars that died long ago. But that’s not true. Only the very rarest of stars send light into the future that way. The rarest stars. And, maybe, mothers. I hope for this, and hard.
In August of 2018, an orca named Tahlequah, or J35, gave birth to a calf that lived for only half an hour. When the calf died, Tahlequah carried her dead baby on her back for seventeen straight days. A tour of grief, we called it. Orca whales are one of the most critically endangered species in the world. Billions of populations of animals have already been lost. The sixth mass extinction is even more severe than previously feared.
First steps are always difficult. The trick is learning to lift one foot off the ground while balancing on the other. During the summer of 2019, the second hottest year on record, my granddaughter practiced knock-kneed walks across wet grass. This was when I could still hold her hands and kiss her soft fuzzy head. This was when she could still squish her face right up close up to mine and cut carefully enunciated words with her sharp new teeth. This was also when she first learned her elder tree, and tended to it, circling its branches and brushing her fingertips across the veins of its serrated leaves. Around and around her tree she went during that time, her first summer of naming the world. She offered kisses, too, one by one, pressing her lips to the green. “Gentle, gentle,” she whispered to the leaves. But that’s not quite right. It was never to the leaves she spoke. It was to herself, a reminder of what she naturally believed in then, and still does, and hopefully, still will, much farther into her future than I can see.
The world is good. I will gladly carry my granddaughter’s belief like a candle, shielding its flicker with my own body for as long as my body lasts. I will carry this belief for her on the shadow of a chance it might glow forward, all the way into the time and place where her future self might need it more than ever.
Jeannine Ouellette is the author of The Part That Burns, a memoir in fragments (Split/Lip Press, February 2021). She has also published several educational books and the children’s picture book Mama Moon. Her stories and essays have appeared widely in journals including Narrative, Masters Review, North American Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, and in several anthologies, and her work has been supported by Millay Colony for the Arts, Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, and Tin House Writers Workshop. Jeannine teaches writing through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and mentors through the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. She is founder of Elephant Rock, a creative writing program based in Minneapolis, where she lives near the banks of the Mississippi.