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The first island to disappear was barely land at all.
My fourteen-year-old daughter discovers the clickbait one evening: They Look for This Island, But What They Find Instead Will Blow Your Mind.
I peek over her shoulder as she narrates: Apparently a research vessel on its way to New Zealand noticed Midge Island, a speck of reef, was not where the map said it should be, was, in fact, nowhere at all.
My husband scoffs. Don't read that garbage. He is splayed across the loveseat, laptop resting on his thighs. He continues: This kind of thing used to happen when people drew maps by hand, and these tiny sandbars or whale corpses or kelp rafts, they kept being copied forward because nobody questioned it.
I google Midge Island.
My daughter scrolls on. Her voice holds a wave, a minor tremble, when she speaks. It's gone, though. That's what it says. Midge Island just disappeared.
That doesn't sound real, kiddo.
Mom, were you tracking it?
My graduate students and I chart islands impacted by climate change, the rate of erosion for each coastline, estimating the amount of time before they are devoured by the sea.
I've never heard of it.
Don't encourage this, says my husband. He swivels, catches his laptop before it falls. Islands don't just disappear.
I zoom in on a satellite map, expecting a grain of sand in a rolling blue Pacific eye. But there's only empty ocean, a patch of skin from which a scar has faded or a birthmark has been removed.
My daughter plants herself further back into the couch cushion, tapping at her phone. She has always chosen words carefully, scientifically. When she was younger she saw a spider once, hesitated before stomping it out. She said, I was terrified. No, petrified.
She asks, so it's happened before?
Sailors used to get confused in the 1800s, my husband says. Drunk. Sometimes they saw things that weren't there.
My daughter looks so young in this moment. I want to promise her that it's nothing to worry about, that Midge Island has never existed so it couldn't disappear.
It's nothing, says my husband.
But a thought is germinating, a gritty thought, too impossible to speak, a foreboding like being alone in a darkened street.
In the morning my daughter's face is all rocky shore, all treacherous reef and sweeping tide. My husband asks how she is and all she says is fine, barely looking up from her unfinished geometry homework. I have coffee with a colleague about a book we are writing and my husband forgets his lunch and I do not think of Midge Island again. Its most recognizable quality is that it is no longer here.
Kiribati vanishes one week later, a periwinkle and golden paradise, a flower petal archipelago strung across the sea.
We were tracking this one, I tell my husband. Kiribati is number one on internet lists of Top Ten Most Beautiful Remote Islands and Ten Gorgeous Islands You Need to Visit ASAP Before Climate Change Destroys Them.
So it was erosion, he says, leaning over my shoulder, hard plastic of his glasses against my temple.
No, not this quickly.
I was interviewed once for a well-known science podcast, a live show, alongside a climatologist from Kiribati, a woman who answered questions in front of an audience with more ease than I can ever pull off. I spoke about ocean levels, the ways we are always being eroded. The scientist from Kiribati described the situation for her country, its atolls always under siege, each tide rising higher than the last.
The male host nodded as we spoke, interrupting and questioning and scooping the ends of our sentences under the beginnings of his own, our thoughts and words becoming only sand swept out to sea. He did it while the other woman was discussing her peoples' likely future evacuation, then started to ask what could be done. She cut him off.
She said, we won't let ourselves be eroded. You can't disappear us.
My husband has stepped away from the desk now, massed himself across the room. They had a language, he says. Have. They have a whole language.
He specializes in dying languages, is convinced we will lose the power to communicate before we go extinct. It panics him so much, this idea, that he began correcting my daughter's grammar as soon as she started to speak, her eyes going wide as he told her, It's I want, not just want. I want.
Want, said my daughter. She couldn't quite shape it, the I.
He shakes his head. This has to be a mistake.
In the same way he pauses over vicious comments like the ones I receive with every op-ed I publish, in the same way he clears his throat. In the same way he responded to a boy pulling our daughter's ponytail years ago at school with, boys will be boys.
My husband once more says, someone has made a mistake. He looks past me like he is trying to see some unknown intact land.
A small island called North Sentinal is gone on a Wednesday. It was home to one of the only untouched tribes in the world. We first read the news at work, a colleague and I, and he shrugged. No one could go there, he said, so wasn't it always lost?
I didn't respond, and later that evening, when I tell my husband over the sound of wine bottle on glass, he shakes his head. Jesus, he says, what do you even say to that?
He is smiling, an awkward half-smile, and drops of wine mark his lips. There is a glassiness to his gaze, a melting into light, an air like a beam through fog, like he is trying to pierce a haze he cannot understand.
All the reports say it just disappeared. Like the other ones. Like — Disappeared sounds too easy, he continues. He is galloping through words, through sentences, the way he did when his mother died, when his anxiety becomes greater than his care for language. Disappeared sounds like someone wiped them away in the night. Like they never existed.
Neither of us teach in the morning, had planned to work after dinner, but when we see the news of North Sentinal, my husband's disbelief blossoms into anxiety, an unease that settles throughout each room.
We need a word for these islands, we need something new, we need something better.
He uses the word "we" like the two of us are automatically united in his quest, just as he did when I told him I was pregnant. He still has no idea that I waited two weeks to tell him. He never asked when I had known. He just assumed the knowledge was his, his and mine, immediately.
Extinct, he says, pouring another glass.
Absent, I reply, humoring him.
Un-discovered. It rolls from my mouth, a tripping word. A hyphenated pause, a skip in a record, like the moment when the doctor asked, do you want to hear the heartbeat? And I almost thought I might say no, the repelling, the recoiling, captured in that breath.
Shit, says my husband. Okay. I deserve partial credit here.
It's not a kid. You didn't half-raise it.
At the doctor my husband said, let's hear our child.
I couldn't say it, could only say: Mine. My body.
My husband gulps the last of his wine.
When North Sentinal was first discovered by outsiders years ago, the North Sentinalese made it clear they didn't want contact. This is ours, they signaled. This is ours.
It took the men from outside ages to understand, until they were pelted by Sentinalese arrows, Sentinalese spears.
Tristan da Cunha is un-discovered four days later.
It had a United Kingdom post code. The people could order packages from Amazon.
I am asked to be on CNN for a Skype interview.
Why me, I ask. I'm not famous.
Well, says the person on the line, we know of your books. You're "erosion famous."
I tell my husband later that night.
He tells me I will be fantastic, pauses before saying, but they're just disappearing. They're not eroding.
Un-discovering, you mean.
A flash of grin, a leaning away.
I clean the office before the interview. My husband tries to help, but he is constantly asking where something should go, what he should do next. There's too much detritus to clear away completely — papers and folders and books and a few tiny insect corpses, desiccated and crumpling into themselves — so I shove everything behind the desk, under the futon.
The interview starts and the host asks, so you know the subject of erosion like the back of your hand, can you give us your ideas here?
I talk about climate change. I talk about how the ocean is chipping away at everything.
But this isn't erosion, says the anchor. These islands are going away out of nowhere. So what would you call that?
It's like they're being un-discovered. Like the opposite of finding.
Un-discovered, says the anchor. He savors the word, lets it trickle from his lips. That's perfect.
Later, after congratulating me, my husband nods at the screen. He says, look. You're trending.
The ticker reads: Senator says un-discovered islands brought this on themselves.
Turn it off, says my daughter. She stares at him, takes him into a gaze that is an eruption forming a crust, new land through which he cannot crack.
My husband, glancing from her to me, says, it's scary, I know, kiddo.
She spins on him, eyes wide and dark, just like mine. I'm not a kid.
I'm just saying, we're all scared.
You don't understand, she shouts over her shoulder, punctuating the final word with her footsteps as she sprints upstairs.
Teenagers. My husband shakes his head. I'll go talk to her.
But I am out of the kitchen before he can move.
My daughter only lets me in her room after I promise I'm alone.
It takes her ages, eons, to finally shake her head when I ask if she's okay.
There is a new drinking game, apparently. You name islands, she tells me, you all name islands one by one, places that might disappear next. You drink while you think. Or you drink when you can't think of anything. It depends.
I do not want my child playing this game. Somehow the game is more terrifying than the alcohol. When she was born I had the sense of wearing my organs outside of my body, of being boneless and skinless and unprotected. I did not understand it, how she could be herself but also a little of me too.
When you run out of islands, she says, you just start saying places.
One of her friends was playing at a party over the weekend. When she passed out, boys pulled away her clothes, took pictures of her. That's all, she says, as though this is not enough, as though she has no right to be upset.
She pauses before saying, they call her Midge now. Because there's nothing left to see.
I hear in her voice a lightness I understand, that comes from losing yourself, the sand grains, the glassy sparkling particles of you, swept away a little every time a man screams at you from a car or touches you without asking or tells you without telling you how the world is not yours. I do not want her to lose the feel of a new dress before men see her in it or the texture of new lipstick before men taste it, before it bloodies their lips like they are biting out parts of her. I want to weigh her down, keep her from floating away in the tide, but I know it has already begun.
My husband comes to her room to apologize and she accepts, graceful, and it frightens me, the veneer girls wear from so young, the ease with which men are forgiven.
I tell my husband about it later, the photographs, the girl's clothes peeled away like layers of sunburnt skin.
He cannot believe it. We've met those boys, he says. They're good kids, aren't they? That's someone's daughter.
I send an email to the school. She's a person, I say.
Only it comes out like a plea.
When Svalbard is un-discovered, it plays on every twenty-four-hour news channel. The Global Seed Vault was there, a safe house for the world's genetic diversity, a gray building thrust through the ice, a bland but valuable monster.
I am on CNN again, talking heads with a man who can only loosely be described as a journalist. Actually, he says, the real question is, why aren't we looking into alternative theories? For instance, the fact that some of these islands have never been listed on maps.
I find myself preaching caution when all I can think is, did you not know? Did you not know that the world can fall apart?
Some people think it's aliens, the journalist insists. Some people think it's God. Some people think it's the Earth, breaking apart slowly. Should we be listening to them? It sounds like you all know the same amount.
The sentence hangs, the way fog does in a valley.
I've studied erosion my whole adult life, I reply. Or maybe since before then, maybe since I was born.
What's erosion got to do with this?
I have a sense of vertigo, not with height but with time, standing on the verge of myself at this moment, gazing at all the other moments that have come before, unable to pick out the strata of them, the moments of my life and who I was before now; they are all too molten, too volcanic. Who I was before my college boyfriend fucked me so painfully I gave him blowjobs so I would not have to sleep with him, who I was before I had this child, who I was before my husband, before the maternity leave left me frustrated and empty.
It's the study of disappearing, I say.
We argue for a few moments more before the interview ends.
Later that night I can't sleep. I find my daughter in the den, rigid and blanketed, clutching her knees to her chest like the mummies they find on the tops of mountains. She is perfectly preserved, her face awash in the colors of un-discovery. History channels are airing specials about lost cities and I wonder if they are meant to be comforting, these images of stonework erupting from jungles, statues awakening through vines. If they're all saying, we've lost things before, but see, we find them again.
I watched one of these the other night, I tell her. About phantom islands, islands that turn out to be mirages or dead whales or hallucinations.
I know what they are.
Of course she does. She already knows about diminishing, about curling herself into a shell.
We're always losing stuff, she whispers.
I feel that she is waiting, waiting for her mother to make sense of something. To tell her that the world is not terrifying, not to me, and because she is partly me, mostly me, all me, that one day it will cease to be terrifying for her. That she will never catch her breath walking alone, that she will lose nothing.
But when I sit next to her we do not speak. The sofa creaks as she lays her head on my shoulder. The heaviness does not come from weight.
The world is emptying and constricting all at once, like water through a closing fist.
We hold our monthly book club out of some strange defiance, some deep-down female anger. None of us has even brought the novel.
Our phones all buzz at once, the same tone shocking the air as the one used for Amber Alerts, the tone we all understand to mean that something has been lost, something that must be recovered at all costs. There is a collective breath.
Someone whispers, shit.
One of my colleagues turns to me. You went there once, didn't you? Easter Island?
Yes, I reply. It is all a blur now, like trying to pick out one tree in a landscape of trees, trying to focus on it, to memorize it, all from the window of a moving car.
My daughter used one of my photos of a moai as a model for one she made in sixth grade. We pored over my photo album to find the right one.
She asked, what were you doing there?
The hills, balding and fuzzy with infant grasses. The wind, how it screamed. The profound loneliness of the moai, their always-open eyes, their sense of having watched civilizations slough away.
We were studying, I told her. The way the environment weathered the island. The way it's been picked apart.
I watched my daughter giggling at my outdated outfits. I watched her and I thought that from the moment she was born the world was narrowing around her, was squeezing and saying you fit so well just here, do not move, you can be whatever you want as long as it is motionless.
Everyone at book club has heard about the drinking game. I owned a stab of silent pleasure earlier in the evening, a guilty hit of smugness when the others said things like, oh, it was like pulling teeth to get Shawn to talk to me. We shook our heads at the unfortunate incident — as some mothers said — with my daughter's friend, so long ago, a half hour ago, when we thought we could attempt to be normal again. We talked about how strangely terrifying this drinking game was, the adaptability of our children.
After Easter Island, though, none of us want to leave. Either we do not want to end this evening, this one night away from our families, or we have had too much wine, or we are keeping at bay something that is nameless and dark and always with us but seems to fade when we are in the company of other women.
It is only a matter of time, then, before one of us starts the drinking game.
We cannot think of islands.
That's just where you were born, I scold.
It is dizzying, this new game, this new world. I do not want my daughter to understand that even places we have touched and in which we have existed, those things we believe to be eternal and unchanging, can now be gone entirely without warning. I do not want her to play this game or drink alcohol or have children, to carry them and give them to this world like she is giving a part of herself, a part she never really knew.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Extinction Events"
Copyright © 2019 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Un-Discovered Islands
2. Four Self-Portraits of the Mapmaker
3. Survival in the Plague Years
4. The Lemurians
5. Extinction Events Proposed by My Father
6. The Disaster Preparedness Guidebook
7. How Cities Are Lost
8. Devil’s Tooth Museum
9. The Supernova of Irvin Edwards