Field Trip to the Beach
Basking Ridge, NJ
2023, Senior, Poetry & Spoken Word
Climate Hero: Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Jo-Jikum
“they say it will gnaw at the shoreline [..] / they say you, your daughter / and your
granddaughter, too / will wander rootless / with only a passport to call home
– Kathy Jetñil Kijiner
The scientist said that we have eleven years
to avoid catastrophe. How easy it is for him
to say that—I know how readily we are
forgotten. Outside, a finger of smoke presses
against the window, a newborn hurricane rattling
the door like a loose coin purse. I mistake it
for the persistent knock of a tourist.
In Jakarta, a child trips into a pothole
and the ocean swallows him like a great foam beast.
At the shore, water steals under the seawall: severing
stone, nibbling at concrete, shorelines starved into
valleys of silt. Ten bloodlines later, my people
will be pseudohistory, our temples fossilizing
on the seafloor. After monsoon season, I scavenge
the beach for anything that’s still alive, fingers smeared
in dirty oil. A crowd gathers around a dead whale, her teeth
zippered in plastic retainers, skin slicked with slaughter.
I wish I could tell her how much I loved that body:
halo of fat lined with oil in a life where
we are always hungry, its eyes, a searchlight
of thousand-mile journeys. So, the scientist says, we are all
unforgiven. The distance between now and then is
only what we make of it. I wish I could take him
to see the whales. Let him know what death
smells like. Let him know the sea that births us all.
On vacations to Hawaii and Alaska, I was concerned about how the hotels and ports were overflowing with tourists who often disregarded their detrimental cultural and environmental impacts. Later, I learned that developing countries, especially island nations, are burdened with the most severe effects of climate change despite contributing far less to carbon emissions than developed countries. I was inspired by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, a poet and activist from the Marshall Islands, and her poem “Dear Matafele Peinam” (an excerpt of which serves as my piece's epigraph) describing how her homeland will, in the near future, be inhabitable for her daughter’s generation if urgent actions are not taken. I decided to write my piece from the perspective of a speaker residing on an island nation. Although tourists may see vacations to such islands as fun "field trips," my poem exhibits the consequences of climate change through imagery such as hurricanes, sinking cities, rising sea levels, dead whales washing up on the shore, and lost civilizations “fossilizing / on the seafloor.” In addition, I address how climate change erodes not only an island’s physical shape, but also its peoples’ culture, identity, and “how readily [they] are forgotten.” It is important for indigenous activists and Pacific Islanders to be included with scientists in the conversation of climate change, and I am hopeful that pioneers such as Jetñil-Kijiner can represent a greater diversity of voices and continue harnessing the arts as an avenue for social change.