Notes from an Invasive Species
Helen Shewolfe Tseng
IT IS JUNE 2018, and I am spending nearly a month at an artist residency on the Mendocino coast, a four hour drive north of my apartment in San Francisco. The title and ethos here is this will take time, and this line sits heavy and resonant with me for this nebulous stretch that often feels immeasurable. Approximately nine months ago, I performed a visual narrative called “Secrets of a Southern Goth” in the fourth season of Place Talks at the Prelinger Library, comprised of two months of excavation and research into my early years as an immigrant child in rural Mississippi, a land of fraught racial binary that I had no designated place in. I had been meaning to deal with this for almost a decade, unpacking the layers of personal, sociopolitical, and geological histories and trauma, and examining their latent effects on my life, work, and perception of the United States, the country of my primary residence and citizenship. I have brought this work with me to continue the gathering, contextualizing, processing, and dismantling with no particular end in mind. I sense that I am supposed to get down to the bottom of something that I can’t yet identify.
I share space with artists spending their days immersed in the eighty acres of secluded land surrounding us: walking, working with soil, making plant medicine. I find myself holed up in the farmhouse’s second-floor library, with a view of the property in three directions, watching fields of tall grass billow like waves. I spend my days perched up here, drawing and painting on paper and writing on my laptop. Many days pass before I finally leave the house to walk the property. I have been warned about ticks and have read many accounts of the Lyme-afflicted, who suffer in unquantifiable and unpredictable ways that are difficult to detect physically; as a result, their sickness is often not taken seriously. Before arriving here, I order a full body work jumpsuit as recommended by the residency organizers, and it becomes part of my studio uniform and protective armor. I am wondering whether it is possible to engage the land in my art practice without ever stepping foot in it.
• • •
The views along the Pacific Coast are dusty and beautiful, as if seen through a filter, or on aged film. Jagged geometries and clean lines are washed grey and muted pastel by the dry salty air. Northern California’s uniform matches that of its sports teams: golden straw yellows and deep vibrant blues. If the sky’s the limit, California’s on a clear day is a vast round canopy. I am put at ease by this palette, one that appears distant and majestic.
In contrast, the colors of the rural Mississippi of my youth are dank, saturated, moist. The greens are overripe, the pinks like swollen welts, the browns rich with warmth and depth. This palette is immediate and visceral, often lush, often rude. The sky is pale and hangs low and horizontal and there is a feeling and knowing of oppression – which is certainly true politically, socially, economically, and culturally, but I mean this in the physical sense. The air is thick and palpable with heat and humidity. There is a constant drone of mosquitoes, crickets, and cicadas, a noise that is simultaneously a mass. Nature is violent there; you couldn’t sit in the grass. I am still not fully sold on how okay everyone here in California is about sitting in the grass, about being at one with the land. In rural Mississippi, nature has you on guard, always. Nature is discomfort and pain, nature is a threat.
In the grass, there are fire ants. Their bites ripen into itchy seed pearls that we would prick with a pin and squeeze clear pus from. Their hills are enormous mounds of dirt that pepper the land, staking a claim and signaling you to stay away. On uneventful summer days, bored and sweaty and hungry for excitement, we’d shovel the dirt from one mound into another and watch the rival ant colonies fight to the death. We were told it was one way to get rid of them, but you could never really get rid of them.
One of my elementary schools’ mascots was the yellowjacket, a vicious predatory wasp known to build nests large enough to engulf entire adult humans. Once, I was punctured in the hand repeatedly by a wasp that had taken refuge in my pillowcase. Once, I opened my window and found a black snake curled up right inside the frame. Once, I got tangled in a growth of poison ivy while picking blackberries and ran a fever that kept me home from school for a week. Our classrooms kept snapping turtles as pets, whose sharp beaks could relieve you of a finger. Other things we tried to keep as pets: live mudbugs, rescued from a crawfish boil; roly-polies; fuzzy striped caterpillars, tucked into jelly jars and fed fat with glossy green leaves and our hopes that they’d turn into butterflies (they always turned into moths); and just once, much to the disgust of my dad, a cockroach that my sister fed popcorn to. Our one semblance of a real pet was a stray tabby kitten and its secret infestation of fleas, who died tragically young under a family friend’s car.
On the hottest days of the year, we carried winter layers inside in anticipation of excessive air conditioning, the line between the untamed and civilized a machined atmospheric drop. You could cool off in a swimming pool, of which there are many, unless there’s a thunderstorm brewing on the horizon—you could get electrocuted. My parents bought firewood from a one-armed man who lost the other to a lightning strike. He gave my mom a log shaped like a human leg that she cherished and refused to burn. At school, we had drills for tornadoes and hurricanes and fires and floods, for the very real natural disasters that swept through not infrequently. The first person I knew to die at my age was drowned by the Mississippi River.
• • •
The residency organizers leave us a manual detailing the grounds and resources, which includes a section stating that intensity is in alignment with their intent in creating this space. I begin to think about what intensity means to me, and the ways that my recognition of intensity can sometimes manifest long after an intense experience.
The farmhouse is laced with spiderwebs, and any attempts to clear them away seem futile. On my first few mornings here, I am startled by spiders in inconvenient places: by the tea kettle, in the sink, in the shower. My animal brain is afraid of spiders, but I am trying to unlearn that while I am here. They quickly stop appearing unexpectedly, but not before I witness a particularly large one trap and kill a horsefly just feet away from my horrified and fascinated face. From the library, I watch finches stop by to help themselves to clumps of soft webbing to line their nests with. Occasionally, a spider becomes a bird snack.
Even though I have now lived in California for more than half my life, I find that in contrast with my surroundings in Mississippi, where I had developed an intimate knowledge of the regional flora and fauna, I am still bad at identifying things here, as if they are not yet mine to acquire. I start keeping a list of all of the animals I see and it’s not long before I fill the page, mostly with birds that I catalog using my very scientific method of internet-searching rudimentary descriptions and scrolling through pages of possibilities until I find an image that is... close enough. Nests filled with baby swallows are cemented into the garage rafters; I watch them grow from tiny newly-hatched muppets into fully-formed adults in a matter of days. A few times, a sparrow flies into the house to my absolute delight.
• • •
A couple weeks into the residency, I wake up to an onslaught of news alerts that shake me to my core. Despite this being the norm these days, I still find it difficult to normalize. Against my natural inclination to isolate and immerse myself in a distracting but likely unhelpful activity, I join some other residents on a drive north to an ecological staircase containing a pygmy forest. We hike through drastically different landscapes that all look like something out of my childhood ideals of wilderness – soft clearings carpeted with pine needles, cavernous brush, giant gnarled trees – all perfect for climbing on and hiding in. The wayfinding in this park appears to be incomplete or in disrepair. We take many wrong turns and get lost, ending up on a residential street of homes proudly displaying American flags.
On the way home, we turn off the road at an old sign of a bar open only two days a week. We wind up a hill and arrive at a little shack on the top of a bluff, overlooking a stunning view of the ocean, primed for sunset. And then we notice the Trump campaign stickers, the red hat. After we nervously order a round, the seventy-seven-year-old owner and barkeep tells us stories of inventing strong drinks to subdue young women; of inheriting the land from his father, who had been bequeathed a fortune from a wealthy elderly woman he had seduced and married within a year of her death; of his mother, only a teenager when she became his then much older father’s third bride (which gives him “hope yet”). I can’t tell if he is trying to entertain, impress, or warn us, but his voice has a chillingly familiar tone of pride, and he makes us all extremely uncomfortable. We leave as soon as we can manage, blasting Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy on the drive back.
I have been using this time to observe myself. I realize that long before this encounter, I have been on edge, more than I have been in a long time.
• • •
In Northern California, the natural environment is treated as a tranquil escape, a direct link to some feral, pristine lineage of ours. In rural Mississippi, the wilderness appears to draw you a boundary; it does not presuppose that we should be here at all, attempting to thrive within its unforgiving midst. But it is humans who construct the perimeters of wilderness, who define and divide things on binaries, and who write the accompanying narratives on a spectrum from harmony to hostility. Of this, I am far from exempt.
I have since learned that there are indeed mosquitoes in Northern California, and teams of bike couriers that treat San Francisco’s storm drains with methoprene, which breaks the mosquito’s life cycle at the larval stage. There is poison oak, whose blistering rash can sneak up on you days after contact. There are earthquakes, and the theoretical “big one” looming an uncertain distance on the horizon, almost too abstract for consideration. There are wildfires and droughts, and winds that have been known to drive people mad. And there are ticks, Lyme-carrying and otherwise. These threats are less overt, hiding in the shadows to spring upon you like a microaggression or unconscious bias, a threat only at the level to which we are honest about these things and are willing to see them.
During my final week, I meet my first tick, the kind you’re supposed to watch out for. I don’t encounter it outdoors, like I had expected to; it’s just crawling on the kitchen counter by the toaster. I notice for the first time that ticks are arachnids, with eight legs like spiders. This one has a pretty red-and-black pattern on its abdomen, as if color-coded for danger and toxicity. When we fail to squash it in a paper towel, we flush it down the toilet. The whole experience is disconcerting and humbling. You really can touch the wild without ever venturing into it; the wild can reach inside and touch you.