2020, Senior, Creative Writing
I never knew there were so many names for blue until I opened a Crayola 64-pack for the first time. Cerulean, ultramarine, cobalt, azure—the name of each crayon lingering under my tongue like candy, its taste sweet and unfamiliar. I layer them one over the other as I color in my map of the world—careful to stay within the lines, to make sure the blue of the oceans doesn’t bleed past the edges of bright green continents. At home, my mother tapes it to the refrigerator while I try to translate the different shades again for her, but in Chinese, there is only one blue—lan, a single gentle, exhaled flick of the tongue. I say it over and over during dinner, lan, lan, lan, until the sounds run together like waves, until somewhere between the flowing syllables, the translation comes across, and my mother smiles wearily.
I can’t tell you what 140 million square miles of ocean looks like, but I can tell you about the small stretch of the Cape we drive down to at the start of every summer and then leave behind come September. Here’s a secret: it’s always more beautiful at night. You can’t see the discarded beer cans, the sunburned toddlers poking at a misfortunate upturned crab, the plastic scraps tangled into nooses—instead, there’s just the air misted with fine white salt, the soft black shadows of the pier, and of course, that shimmering line stitching together sky and water in the shape of a promise. You squint at it in the distance, so fragile you’d think the next breath of wind would wipe it away and leave us all undone, but it always holds, even when the sky bruises itself into dawn and the tourists start to return. I want you to believe in the endless perfection of those summer nights, where each grain of sand and drop of water is yours to love, but never to keep.
Some things are so great in scale that they become difficult to comprehend in the context of our own lives. Go from measuring two cups of flour or sugar to 36.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide—the recorded level of fossil fuel emissions in 2018—and suddenly we have an oven preheated to disaster. According to a 2015 New York Times article, the oceans have absorbed the equivalent of “a coal train long enough to encircle the equator 3 times.” I can’t help but think: such a clean, gentle verb, “encircle.” “Strangle” would have been more accurate. I want to go back to the Cape, to show you my own equivalents—how every year it becomes more painful to run barefoot down the beach, the sand strewn with bits of plastic and glass and curling metal. I remember the first time my brother and I found a dead jellyfish, washed too far up shore to hope for resuscitation at high tide, its iridescence faded and tired, our faces bent close in reverence. I think of how we retch carbon into the water and in turn, the ocean gifts us with sea glass and dead jellyfish and dried salt-encrusted tears on the rocks.
The fish, newly clubbed, wrenches against plastic—and I don’t know whether it is the mouth or eye that gapes at me, rounded in agony. On reflex, I drop the bag and it bursts open on the ground like a wound, bright with desperation, in the middle of one of Kyoto’s world-renowned fish markets. But I’ve grown up eating fish—in Chinese, fish is pronounced the same way as plentiful, and it’s a culturally lucky dish to eat on New Year’s. We simply don’t have to take our new beginnings from the deaths of endangered species, and with information like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s consumer guides (which even include recipes!) broken down by region and alphabet growing in circulation, I do think people want to help, we just need the knowledge to do it. As consumers, we are capable of holding businesses accountable.
In economics class, pollution is categorized as a “negative externality,” and one of the promising solutions designed to reduce emissions on a global scale is emissions trading, which applies a market force to assigned “units” of carbon emissions, allowing reduction to occur more flexibly and effectively than through other methods like taxes or fines. First, a cap is applied on the total amount of carbon units, and permits representing a certain number of units per year are allotted to each country or corporation. These permits can be traded depending on a corporation’s needs, and over time, the cap can be lowered to reduce the total amount of emissions. In fact, the European Union has maintained a cap since 2005, which is estimated to have contributed to a 210m tonne decrease in carbon emissions across Europe. The EU carbon trading market is now worth over $38 billion, rendering it a viable economic response to climate change. Of course, trading is ultimately dependent on cooperation.
When the numbers and statistics aren’t enough, the colors are. I remember standing with my friends in front of the Massachusetts State House last September as part of the Youth Climate Strikes occurring around the world, the weather unusually warm for New England in the fall. If I close my eyes, I can still see the faces and signs in my mind, but most of all, the colors, and I think of my map again from kindergarten. When we are responsible for so much bleaching and killing, it is time for us to breathe hope back into the oceans—we can still color our map of the world, all of us—not with just blue and green crayons anymore, but with the multitudes of voices, endless and bright and ready for change.
Monterey Bay Aquarium. (n.d.). Consumers. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://www.seafoodwatch.org/consumers
NASA Science. (2018). Ocean Color. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://science.nasa.gov/earth-science/oceanography/living-ocean/ocean-color
Paris, F. (2019, January 05). Threatened Bluefin Tuna Sells For $3 Million In Tokyo Market. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2019/01/05/682526465/threatened- bluefin-tuna-sells-for-5-000-per-pound-in-tokyo-market
Spinrad, R., & Boyd, I. (2015, October 15). Our Deadened, Carbon-Soaked Seas. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/16/opinion/our-deadened-carbon -soaked-seas.html
United Nations. (n.d.). Emissions Trading. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://unfccc.int/process/the-kyoto-protocol/mechanisms/emissions-trading
United Nations. (2017). Factsheet: People and Oceans. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Ocean-fact-she et-package.pdf
Wasser, M. (2019, September 20). Scenes From The Youth Climate Strike In Boston. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://www.wbur.org/earthwhile/2019/09/20/environmental-protest-massachusetts-photos-sunrise-movement
I’ve learned that writing, as a form of art, offers a personal, humanizing lens to the issue of climate change, which often seem incredibly impersonal. I hope that narrative moments in my piece can serve as a point of tangible connection between a creator and an audience who might hold different values and come from different experiences. In my creative process, I’ll start with a few concrete images or memories that I want to hold on to as centerpieces for the piece, and then I try to build around them. Poetry, especially, has taught me to scrutinize my writing on a very fundamental level, until each word and comma and paragraph break is intentional, and thus more valuable in communication. My ultimate goal is to channel those concerns into action, which I think implies hope that action is possible, and I try to incorporate a sense of generational tension in my work through fragmented chronology, tense shifts, etc. The artwork of others definitely gives me hope—I’m constantly impressed by not only the technical ability of artists involved with environmental work but also their sense of innovation—how they develop new mediums and pay attention to material sustainability. There’s a German artist called Nils Udo who creates his pieces with solely natural elements and places them within nature, so that they become part of the landscape—which I think is really beautiful, especially because we as humans have stolen so much beauty.