A Cromwell: Gowanus Canal, 2009 (CC)

by Susan Daitch

An Essay in Seven Parts



A motorboat of observers drew closer, its engine silenced, its driver leaning over the steering wheel, sunglasses pushed to the top of his head. The track of the sun on the water looked like a path you could walk on, but the people onboard put hands over the tops of the phones to block its glare as they took pictures. One man had an actual camera, and he leaned over the railing with the confidence of a person who spent a lot of time photographing the ocean both underwater and on the surface. From the air, the six people would have looked like a cluster of sea anemones swaying with the motion of a current, but the dolphin, object of their interest, ignored them. She nudged her calf for hours, trying to keep it afloat, struggling to keep its nose above water, as if the baby dolphin was only injured, and could be revived. She used every body part available to her, back, tail, rostrum, to urge life back into the calf, and she did so to the point of exhaustion, still trying, refusing to abandon her dead. The mother’s whistles were more complex than usual, echolocations repeated frequently, and for long periods of time. The dolphin isn’t alone in mourning its dead. Elephants, crows, African grey parrots and other animals have been observed not coming to terms with their loss, reluctant to abandon lifeless bodies, and when doing so, they’re said to be exhibiting epimeletic behaviour, a set of responses usually reserved for humans. So the fork in the road shifts again, to be human occupies this territory, and animals reside over there.

We measure animal consciousness by seeing how they align with us: cognition, language, use of tools. But maybe the ability to suffer should be plugged into the list somewhere, and captivity in mini-simulated environments: savannah, cloud forest, a pool standing in for the Pacific (a micro format if there ever was one). Probably not a total source of joy. Zoos and aquariums say: don’t jump to hasty conclusions, we offer freedom from poaching and being fished to extinction. There are many manmade interferences that tinker with an animal’s ability to take care of itself. Light pollution gives false directions to birds trying to migrate from Montreal to Buenos Aires, sounds from ships of all kinds mess up the signals of whales and dolphins, chemical pollution produces mutants and early death. Animals can be hemmed in by all kinds of phenomena, not just bars, but then again, look at Japanese crows who figured out how to leave nuts in the paths of cars, motorised shell crackers. Animals might have the ability to subvert the things we’ve invented, laughing at us when our backs are turned.



Ants have a chemical language, leaving a trail of pheromones, that shout or whisper in secret: hey, food over here. They read the movement of a leaf the way Wave Pilots of the Marshall Islands read the motion of the Pacific as it rocks their canoes travelling hundreds of miles between coral islets, archipelagos, atolls.


Leopard v Deer v Cliff

On YouTube there is footage of a snow leopard and prey going over a precipice, tumbling down in wave after wave of rippling snow displaced by their falling bodies. The leopard must be confident in its bite as it goes over the edge, that the fall is just an inconvenience on the way to dinner. When they finally come to a stop, the bharal appears alive, but so severely injured, there’s no getting up. Its fragile bones must be shattered, and the leopard’s hunger is ferocious, but the predator’s bones and tissue are friable, too. Questions: Why did this video go viral? Who shot it? Who was the one in a million human observer to be in the right place at the right time?


In the Event Of a Moon Disaster

You walk into a living room that looks like a living room you might remember if you were around in July 1969. The wallpaper pattern resembles animations of neutrons, electrons, atoms – modernist abstractions. On a small side table shaped like a triangle with rounded corners is a black dial phone. The television sits in a cabinet and playing on it is an endless loop of Richard Nixon making an announcement he never made. In Event of Moon Disaster, a video installation directed by Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund, imagines the astronauts land on the moon but are unable to leave. There had been a ‘what if…’ script ready for Nixon, sent from speech writer Bill Safire to H.R. Haldeman, in case the mission failed, but it didn’t, and the script was never used until the creators of Moon Disaster tinkered with what evidence existed and the possibilities of deepfake technology. Panetta and Burgund used footage of Nixon sitting at a table, straightening papers, looking uncomfortable, then he reads, they went to the moon to explore in peace, and they will rest on the moon in peace. So, there you are watching the ghost of Mr. Nixon on television in a living room in the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York as if the disaster had really happened. You take a few steps back, turn a corner, and can read about how the recording was made, the use of archival footage from Nixon’s resignation speech, how his voice was simulated, how facial mapping technology was used so that Nixon’s lips would appear to be saying those exact words. And if someone were to find just the video, hundreds or thousands of years later, without further evidence, they might believe, yes, that that early voyage to the moon had ended with stranded humans, held captive by infinite space.


So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Cities guzzle space like algae bloom, multiplying like there’s no tomorrow. You might think: forests ecosystems here, in one box, urban geography in another one entirely. But animals shrug, sniff at the edges and move in. They adapt to live more efficiently in the encroaching margins and then: Why not advance to the centre? Cities offer the advantages of abundant food sources and limited predators, though lethal traffic and humans with traps and poisons represent trouble in paradise. A young raccoon gets it snout into six-pack rings that become a choke collar as it grows, osprey fly into buildings, a fox eats poison meant for rats.

But in observable time, animals’ bodies and responses change as they’re affected by traffic sounds, air currents, food sources and vehicular dangers. Mosquitos began to thrive in subway tunnels where human blood is easily accessed – once in the trains, there’s plenty of time to take a bite. For the moment, of a fashion, passengers aren’t going anywhere. (Especially if there’s a raccoon taking his leisure on the tracks.) If mosquitos have dreams, the interior of a rush hour car is beyond their wildest. The Metropolitan Transit Authority is a paradise of consumption opportunities, and not only does their DNA evolve differently from those left behind on the surface, but it begins to differentiate itself within the subway system. The population of the mosquitos in, say, the A Train tunnel, is no longer exactly the same as those who breed in the F Train tunnels. Who else performs this trick of transformation which sounds suspiciously Lamarckian? The proof is in the phenotypes. Mice, when faced with the white fluff of hot dog buns or puddles of melted ice cream, evolved to better digest human food garbage, but as the kind of food varied according to the location of the parks they inhabited, mouse DNA began to vary according to the park where they fed. The mice of Central Park (more tourists) who tended to feast on hot dogs were not the same as the mice from Prospect Park (more granola bars). Coney Island mice, so close to Brighton, scavenge pierogi and pickled mushrooms, their DNA becomes Russified.

Piotr Osmenda: Train During Daytime, New York City, 2018 (Unsplash)

I’ve lived for many years a few blocks east of the Gowanus Canal, a mysterious neighbourhood where, from the elevated train, you could see concrete being manufactured, churning cement trucks, polka dots painted on their rotating drums, neon signs for Kentile flooring, Eagle Clothes, an isolated letter ‘R’ – perched alone, the rest of the sign long gone – garbage barges, warehouses and the kinds of urban structures that tend to occupy the edges of an unlovely waterway. Much of all that has been demolished to give way to luxury towers, and they will multiply and expand until the canal is just a sidewalk-sized piece of decoration, a selling point for realtors.

While wrecking balls and cranes do their work, birds still swim in its waters, liquid suspensions of arsenic, benzene, chromium, mercury, lead and general unnamed garbage, ten feet of coal tar sludge at the bottom. White mute swans with yellow beaks have been sighted in the canal, paddling past old tyres, plastic drums, pieces of packing material. Mute swans, despite their name, are aggressive and are considered an invasive species, one that upsets the ecological balance of the wetlands habitats they invade, though what ecosystem is being thrown off-kilter in the Gowanus Canal in its present state is hard to know. What happens to their feet and feathers bathed in this soup? It’s easy to imagine the slow corrosion of legs, so that when they take flight, their feet are gone like dropped leprotic limbs, feathers coated with tarry whatever, but then they’d be flightless birds, and there’d be no take off, no leaving the canal behind, and so they’d be doomed to swim for the duration of their lives. It’s also possible to imagine birds evolving, so contact with poison is no longer a catastrophic event, they’ve developed immunity, benzene is nothing more serious than normal salinity. Among the species the aggressive mute swans displace are trumpeter swans, white with black beaks, but who’s to say the trumpeter swans aren’t better off for having migrated elsewhere?

Also in the water: anti-depressants, pain killers, a range of pharmaceuticals, as well as recreational drugs (weekend uptick in levels) and caffeine. Some of it might have the potential to fiddle with alleles in the same way hot dogs and ice cream cast a spell over mice. Marine life ingests this shit, and then big fish eat littler fish, and so on, back up the food chain until it’s back to us, and we, in turn, consume whatever it was right back, inadvertently greeting all these formerly tossed or eliminated substances, hello again, and welcome back.


A Contranym

Green is associated with gestures, events, circumstances, decisions that are seen as shaking a fist at the effects of global warming and its sources. Green is a symbol that signals a prelapsarian or semi-prelapsarian natural world before the interference of the Anthropocene made its effects known big time. It’s also the colour of poisons, toxins, bilious emojis, American dollars. Bright green on the surface of the Gowanus Canal is a marker of chemicals that shouldn’t be there, but they are.

On the road to its current meaning, if green symbolised nature, nature could be dangerous, unpredictable, a constant threat whether in the form of floods, storms, a plague of locusts, unstoppable hail, the presence of wild animals whose bites can be fatal. Wordsworth, using nature as a vector to mark memory and the passing of time, shifted its meaning from danger to wonder, and with wonder, if you going to paint it, came a need for a stable green. Green was traditionally made by corroding metal, but it was a volatile pigment that would eat itself, over time transforming areas of paper that coloured into burn marks unless saffron was added to the paint or dye to stabilise it. Some greens were highly toxic.

Scheele’s Green, a bright maple leaf green, made from copper arsenite, was thought to have led to Napoleon’s death because it was found in large quantities in the wallpaper of his rooms on Saint Helena, his place of exile and imprisonment. Paris Green, arsenic with verdigris added, was meant to be an upgrade from Scheele’s, and was named in recognition of its arsenic component, used to kill rats in the sewers of Paris, but it was just as poisonous. As industrialised cities made nature an object of scarcity, a third green, emerald, became a fashionable colour. However, the arsenic used to produce it caused women who wore dresses dyed emerald to become gravely ill, and children, whose toys were painted with arsenic-based green, met a similar fate, sometimes with mortal consequences. Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal was, among other things, written in revulsion at the Haussmanian destruction of his city, how tangled small streets were levelled to make way for the regular geometry of boulevards and broad avenues. Contemporaneous to the writing of Les Fleurs du Mal, the death of a young florist who worked with artificially coloured flowers, was in the news. The Wicked Witch was green, but so was Queen Esther (Megillah 13a), said to be one of the most beautiful women in the world ever.


The Uncontrollable Double

What if everyone had their own private contranym, a deepfake double who did and said things you yourself would never do? The double is constructed of real data, from the ground up, from what began life as a child’s footprint that grew to a shadow, to a comet’s tail, to a blizzard that’s just like you in every way.

Your face may have been swapped out for another, erasing the target face, and in a blink it’s you doing those things you would never do, but still your reflexive, almost involuntary, expressions when nervous, that surprised look, eyebrows raised so often your forehead is pre-grooved, the movement of facial muscles, neck, shoulders – all of you appears intuitive and effortless – perfectly reproduced, nothing like an automaton who plays antiquated musical instruments, no resemblance to a detailed marionette, Lady Penelope, for example, from The Thunderbirds, turning her whole wooden body in one direction or another while watching her butler, Parker, crack a safe in The Vault of Death. Those kind of human doubles are so obvious and plodding, fooling no one, they are a thing of the way back past. The process of creating deepfakes used to be painstaking and costly, but can now be created in less than optimal circumstances in your garage, your basement, and the sneaky and not-so-sneaky will do it on a regular basis with believable and workable outcomes.

Someone records a body dressed like Irma Vep on a roof, with your face, and that body holds hostages for ransom while funds are transferred between offshore accounts; or your deepfake version is used by someone who wants to become anonymous, escape creditors, warrants, bilk people out of millions; or you turn up in pornography of all kinds.

You could repeat escapes over the Berlin Wall, the high wire walk between the Twin Towers. Was she really there? It looks like she was. Like Steve McQueen jumping from a hundred foot cliff into a river in Papillon, but it wasn’t McQueen, known for doing his own stunts, it was Dar Robinson, one of the greatest stuntmen of all time, and you, too, could take great risks without breaking any bones, as if your skin can be tried on, bought and worn like a new suit. But the deepfake could also appear, when needed, to take on heroic roles, performing as an endangered person, a refugee, a persecuted escapee, mistreated and hunted, whose identity must remain hidden, so your voice and body are substituted for theirs in order to tell a high risk story. You could offer yourself as a stand-in, a substitute for the wanted person, a refusnik who steps out of a plane, into a car, close up of her face, because no one can know the co-ordinates of that road, that house, that grove of real photosynthesising trees.

You could prank someone in the future by planting yourself on Mars, complete with dome-shaped domus and Rover vehicle when your actual shell is long gone, some future citizen will click on something or other, and there you’ll be, as sentient-appearing as you are as you read this, feeling remorse, nostalgia, laughing so hard you can’t breathe when some future citizen may conclude “fake” and click delete.

Missy S.: Gowanus Canal, 2007 (CC)


About the Author

Susan Daitch is the author of six novels and a collection of short stories. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in GuernicaTabletTin HouseThe New England Review, Bomb, Conjunctions, The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction, and elsewhere. Her work was the subject of a Review of Contemporary Fiction, along with that of David Foster Wallace, and William Vollman.  Her recent novel, Siege of Comedians was listed as one of the best books of 2021 in The Wall Street Journal. Daitch’s “Three Essays” was a notable in The Best American Essays 2022.

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