THE WORLDS WE LONG FOR
Have you, like me, longed for a community where we live together in relative amity, following laws we work out for ourselves and valuing each other for our contribution to common good? I have yearned for those worlds my whole life long. It’s what fires me up every morning to sit down and write my speculative fiction about The Rookery and Dunlin, Cedar Haven and Fox’s Earth — ideal settlements scattered around my invented Marshlands, where my characters are warmly valued for their unique personalities and special skills.
Every utopia reminds us of opposite worlds. For my environmental fiction I have invented plenty of dystopias like Breck and Brent and the southern Delta, ruled by greed andcruelty, military domination, sexism, and enslavement. The novel I am marketing for young readers, The Road to Beaver Mill, takes eleven year old Bethany to contrasting communities —the hard-hearted, misogynistic settlement of Western Fisher folk, who despise her as a half-breed and work her cruelly; and the kinder and cheerful settlement of Eastern Fisher folk, where she is welcomed and cherished. Later, she escapes from the starkly dystopian city of Brent to Beaver Mill, utopian in contrast. In my fourth novel, The Battle for the Black Fen, my characters set forth in small companies to spread the news about the coming battle. The Delta Company undertakes a perilous journey into southern lands, a world of deserts and oases and vast marshy areas.
Speculative worlds are never built out of new cloth but from bits and pieces of worlds we already know. My plot is based the draining of the East Anglian fens; for the Delta I needed a desert setting with new details for its wetlands. I found just what I wanted from news about the Ma’dan, self-sustaining marsh dwellers so despised for their self-sufficiency by Saddam Hussein that he systematically drained their fastnesses (Sound familiar?)
Not much good came out of the Iraq War, except America’s environmental priority to restore the marshes. To begin this task, long exiled Iraqi Azzam Alwash (picture below) gathered a “Nature Iraq” team who brought back a portion of the Mesopotamian Marshlands. In 2013 this became Iraq’s first national park. *.
Thus, though the draining of the East Anglian Fens was fully accomplished by greedy merchants after more than two hundred years of resistance by the Fen Tigers, environmental activism has restored a portion of their historic fastnesses to the Marsh Arabs.
In researching the setting for my Deltan lands, I was able to glean the kinds of details I needed I from two classic books about the Ma’dan.** Basically, everything is made out of the enormously tall reeds that grow in the Arab Marshes, so I named my southern marshes the Reedlands. Entire islands are fashioned out of reeds: woven into mats, they form the floors of houses; lashed into columns, they become the arched walls of meeting halls where councils are held and judgments arrived at among tribal sheiks.
The Arab marshes, which used to cover a vast area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, were the first place I ever located on a map. I was perhaps eight years old, sitting at my desk in the geography room at school, with a huge oil cloth map of the middle east hung over the blackboard and my own map in front of me. After we located the two rivers and colored them blue, our teacher asked us to take green crayons and color “The fertile Crescent,” which, she told us, was not only the “Cradle of Civilization” but was also thought to be the location of the original Garden of Eden.
We children were well aware what had become of our residence in that garden; we also knew (it was 1945) that evil could break forth at any moment to rupture our world. During my worst terrors about the Nazis my mother reassured me that “Right will always triumph over Might,” but fear of evil was never far from my heart and would alternate with fierce yearning for a better world for the rest of my life.
Years later, researching the Arab marshes, it became clear that “the Fertile Crescent” was no paradise either. I found plenty about warring tribes and punitive sheiks to confirm the usual blend of utopian and dystopian elements; the flora and fauna weren’t all that Edenic either. You could get hopelessly lost navigating endless mazes of gigantic reeds; and ferocious wild boars inspired one of my most terrifying fictional episodes. The heartening cacophony when thousands of frogs of different species held forth at mating time had its dystopian contrast when the Delta Company came upon frog corpses littering miles and miles of mud after the ruthless drainage of their habitat.
When Berwyn, a boy who becomes the Delta Company’s Reedland guide, finds “little splotches shimmering here and there in the first rays of sun,” he bursts into a lament.
“Oh bright green ones
Oh golden-eyed ones,
Oh leaping ones,
Oh speckled ones,
All, all, even the wise-eyed ones,
Berwyn cried bitterly, shaken with sobs down to this little brown stomach.”
But then his earthly Eden comes to life once again when the drainage area ends:
“A faint trilling grew louder, an interwoven melody and fluting and chuckling, clacking and what sounded like the twang of tambourines.
“Oh bright green ones!
Oh golden-eyed ones!
Oh brown-striped ones!
You live, you yet live,
exulted Berwyn, capering wildly.”
And so it goes in our sorry old world, paradise lost by greedy human beings and paradise restored by those of us who love the earth and cannot bear to see the evils we come up with destroy it entirely.
*Congratulations to 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize recipient Azzam Alwash and his team at Nature Iraq, who are celebrating a huge victory this week, following the announcement that the Mesopotamian Marshlands have been officially recognized as Iraq’s first National Park!
**Gavin Maxwell, A Reed Shaken By the Wind. Longman’s, Green and Co (1957)
Wilfred Thesiger, The Marsh Arabs. Longman’s, Green and Co (1964).