In my reading lately, I’m drawn to writers who try to limn the conscious experience of nonhuman beings. And as judge of this year’s Santa Fe Reporter essay contest, I asked for just that: animals, plants, fungi, even objects. What are they thinking about? I’m dying to know.
Maybe this longing comes from dismay at human behavior, but more than that, I’m curious to understand other forms of intelligence. I devoured a book called Fox and I by Catherine Raven, a sharply observed fable in which a biologist recounts her complex friendship with a fox in rural Montana. It opened my eyes to the relationships I have with creatures around me in my neighborhood: the cloud of sparrows rising from the bushes as I pass by; the horse and two (now three) sheep I commune with on the River Trail; the river itself, rushing through summer and now gone underground, nothing left but a cooling of the air as I approach.
The contest results were delightfully unpredictable. I read about ants who thought “orange juice is the scent of paradise” and chickens riding shotgun in pickup trucks. Marty the Moose was a beloved protagonist, leading one writer to wonder, “Will Marty and I ever find a partner?” But the three winning entries took me places I didn’t expect to go.
First-place winner “The Last Heartbeat” by Gretchen Yost brings the reader closer not just to the minds of animals—beloved pets at the end of their lives—but to the border between life and death itself. As a veterinarian administering euthanasia at home, “I try to be invisible,” they write, “a chameleon blending in to the grief and becoming what I needed to be.”
“Commensalism” by Catherine Page Harris, the second-place winner, asks questions that have never even occurred to me: Do plants in nurseries feel incarcerated? When native and nonnative plants are grown in the same landscape, are they unable to speak the same language?
“Love and Death” by Heidi Fillingim, third place, considers an unlikely relationship between a diabetic and their insulin pump. A story of infatuation and heartbreak, the essay asks how nonliving creatures can make us feel more alive more ourselves, and what risks they pose when they go offline.
I judged this contest because I’m a published writer, but I’m just another person. What do I know? If you submitted an essay and didn’t win, my most heartfelt advice for you: Try again next year. Submit your essay somewhere else. Keep going. In my experience (which includes hundreds of rejections to date), perseverance is the only thing that makes a writer—most peculiar of creatures—a writer. (Jenn Shapland)
SFR has invited all winning authors for a public reception and reading alongside Shapland at 6 pm, Nov. 29 at Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie.
The Last Heartbeat
By Gretchen Yost
Every time I listen to a heartbeat fade, I realize I’m at a precipice between worlds that few experience. A precious life is ending in my hands, by my hands. On this side of the veil, all eyes are on me and my stethoscope, ready for the word so that a different phase of grief can begin. This woman has been dreading this moment for so long. Bisbee was her father’s dog—as arthritic, ancient, and ill as he was before he passed and her only remaining connection to him. If I say “They are together again”—will that comfort her?
This man can’t be there and says a wailing goodbye to the cat before leaving the room. He never liked cats before, but this one stole his soul and loved camping and sunshine and chattering at ravens and sharing ice cream every Sunday night from his bowl as a treat. His wife stays for the whole process, box breathing, talking and holding and petting this frail orange tabby in her lap until the end.
This family can’t accept that their young pit bull full of energy will not, cannot survive the antifreeze he got into that has scorched his kidneys. Brutus wags his tail. The family priest is called and put on speaker phone for a prayer to God for a miracle. Isn’t it possible, Father? We wait for that miracle; they are not ready. I return in three days when they are ready even though Brutus will still wag when they kiss his dry nose.
The death of a pet is a sacred moment and I am invited in as a stranger of necessity for the most intimate of moments. I have crawled onto unmade beds of strangers in bathrobes surrounded by mounds of Kleenex. I have crouched into dog houses, under dining room tables and on bathroom tiles. I have knelt next to couches covered in pee pads for animal friends who have long been incontinent. I have hugged more crying people than a President in a warzone. I try to be invisible, a chameleon blending in to the grief and becoming what I’m needed to be. I’m quiet but still try to find comforting words to fill in the gaps of mourning and uncertainty like whiskey between ice cubes. I did not become a veterinarian for this. No one teaches you how to do this; instead you spend four years learning every possible way to prevent this. I cannot explain how a tenderhearted kid who was devastated by “Dumbo” “Charlotte’s Web” and “Old Yeller” grew into someone who felt compelled to offer home euthanasia, but here I am.
Death comes for us all. It is what all of the living beings on Earth have in common and nothing could be more natural, but of course, that is just logic. We are never ready or prepared for death, and certainly ending a life you have nurtured is not natural. Some reflect that saying goodbye to their pet is harder than any human death they’ve experienced. Some share stories of how their relationship with this animal was the only reason they were able to survive a tragedy, an illness, a divorce, a loss. Those of us lucky enough to have discovered the human-animal bond know the magic effect of a purring feline sleeping next to you or the joy-jolt of a dog running in happy circles just to see you. They accept us. They forgive us. They love us and we grow dependent upon them for our quality of life. Letting that go to spare them the suffering we know lies ahead is always a selfless decision.
That first phone call to me can be resolute and quick or it can be long. With some there is considerable time pondering the agonizing question “When do I know it’s time?” We talk about quality of life, about dignity and fear and mobility and independence and that amazing animal trait of living only in the present. Our animal friends do not lament the plans they had, regret things not done or mourn the thought of not seeing another fall with its bright colors. However, the harsh reality is that we are all programmed to live and to fight to live. We cannot will our bodies to die and an animal will not commit suicide. In the natural world this is not necessary as death comes often violently and painfully to the weak and ill. A natural death for them is not necessarily more humane.
When the day and hour comes, most have spent days preparing and saying goodbye. They think they cannot cry any more—but of course they do. Some have many stories to tell, photos and videos to show, and even painted portraits hanging on the wall. Some offer elaborate ceremonies of separation—blankets, cornmeal, incense, music, chocolate cakes, sirloin treats, bells of Bastet the goddess of cats. There is not a difference between poor and rich, between religious or atheist, between cat or dog or chicken or rat. Love is love is love and it is never greater than in the hour of separation. I am so grateful to see animals loved like this. Maybe that is why I am here.
I have the ability to render death and choose to do so. It is a mighty weight and a power I could argue should not be mine if not for the universal, sincere utterances of gratitude through snot and tears. What happens after our hearts stop beating? I am no closer to knowing the answer than when the unthinkable happened to Old Yeller. Personally I am counting on going to that warm light and when my eyes adjust there will be a welcoming committee of fur, barks, meows, and wags. My lifelong pets will be front of the line, but I hope the ones I have helped out of their failing bodies will trot over and give me a wink and a nudge and I’ll know this was all okay. I hope I pass from this world in the arms of the one who loves me most, in my home after a meal of my favorite food and someone telling me I was a good girl. That’s what I tell people when the heart stops and theirs keeps beating.
Gretchen Yost has worked as a veterinarian in New Mexico for over 20 years. For the last 15 she has worked for Española Humane and many years ago she started a part time home euthanasia service called Angel Paws serving the Española Valley.
By Catherine Page Harris
The yerba mansa plant that I bought to provide some life to the free mosquito fish the City of Albuquerque gave me to put in the rainwater collection barrel—which I keep out of some misguided sense that water collection puts me in touch with the rhythms of the desert—puts out long trailers into the water with optimism. It sits in a pot with soil that is sometimes almost submerged and sometimes just at the top of the waterline. To call this rainwater collection is somewhat a misnomer. The horse trough does collect rainwater from our roof but given the surface evaporation and the general scarcity of rain in Albuquerque, that’s not enough to support my free mosquito fish. And now that I have them, like the other beating hearts I feed every day, I feel obligated to provide them a habitat they can survive in as long as possible. Today, for instance, I put water in buckets, so the chlorine leaches out before I add them to my rainwater collection, because it hasn’t rained for a good while.
Anyway, the yerba mansa reaches out and grows these long trailing vine-like efforts to establish itself in new areas. Every eight inches or so a node with leaves and roots develops. This rain barrel is small and has no other soil in it so the trailers flop underwater and send out plaintive yellowing leaves that barely reach sunlight at the surface. I have taken to clipping these trailers and establishing them as plants in the garden with copious straw mulch and regular water. Supposedly, once established, with shade, they will withstand drought. This seems like an unlikely miracle. How could something that grew up in water, like duckweed, become acclimated to the drought and desert? I see these plants in the Bosque by the river, where the state water compact and the Army Corps of Engineers have created a flood free situation, so I expect it is true. It feels like an experiment in shape shifting, in adaptation, in communication. I do think plants have consciousness, so I worry about my clipping, but then it’s not so different from a beaver or some ungulate having a mouthful, so perhaps it makes sense as a way of relationship. And, so far, the trailers have rooted and grown happily in their new homes. The yerba mansa surprises me by growing flat as it becomes settled, as if it were quilting the ground. I kneel down and touch them to see if they are rooted and their roots tell me that they have found a new home far from their watery beginnings.
I have a plant that I talk to every day. At the door to the School of Architecture and Planning at UNM grows a native elderberry. Initially a shrub, when it and I were new to the school, it now is definitely a small tree and, as time has passed, I am valued as an advisor to younger faculty. Every day on the way in and the way out, I nuzzle an umbel of flowers or brush my fingers on the leaves. I sometimes stand for a moment at the top of the ramp and let its leaves cool my forehead. I think it somehow knows me. This is rank speculation. I am fully aware that it may be special to me, but I may offer nothing to it. My current reading leads me to believe that plants can hear (water), move towards or away from stimuli, make sounds (to attract bugs in desperation), and share resources. I’m not sure how much further I am along sentience than that. Though, I am far enough along to know that if anyone saw me, I would perhaps seem crazy. And maybe I am. Crazy enough to believe in a vibrant sentient world that listens and talks with every gesture and movement. I think it is more crazy that humans, these big apes, have made themselves so closed off that we can bomb and kill and kidnap and explode and strip mine and exterminate. Why can’t we hear the life around us? And hearing, speak back with commensurate voices? I think about commensalism and entanglement as I plunge my nose in my elderberry friend’s flowers and let the greenness of the leaves settle in me.
In my professional capacity, I know that contemporary landscape architecture specifies nursery stock to plant out landscapes. Nursery propagation methods utilize pots which segregate plants into units of production or individual entities. These plants are then shipped with trucks to sites. Does modern nursery practice ignore the slow sentience of plants at the risk of perhaps reducing their complex ability to react to stimuli? Is there a moral or ethical injustice being perpetrated by so heavily manipulating plant life through nursery propagation? Is this a form of trauma to plants? Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass posits that the human plant relationship, the harvesting of sweetgrass, makes the plant healthier. (Kimmerer, 2013) Is it also possible that nursery propagation is a form of relationship, but one more like incarceration?
I recognize that this thinking may turn upside down the world I work in. Seeding landscapes is not so common as we, these large apes, are impatient and loathe to spend the money it takes to hire someone to tend the plants we want to keep growing. I wonder if native plants have dialects to their resource sharing underground or their scent emissions above ground. Prairie dogs speak differently enough to render the warnings of transplanted prairie dogs to the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge unintelligible to local prairie dogs. I suspect that plants may too be speaking local languages, perhaps modified by the soil types around them or the drought resilience aridity forces upon them. At the Santa Fe Railyards park an Afghan pine grows stunted amid a native meadow. I wonder if the surrounding plants are able to speak in its language. I imagined once I heard the meadow speaking thus:
“we share through our roots
penstemon, chamisa, asters, blue gramma, bear grass, seeded natives all
we speak a different tongue
from the Afghan pines
roots bound in the nursery,
we translate as best we can with the rhizosphere we think early confinement binds still”
I realize that listening to the sentient world makes human involvement in the world much more intricate, much slower. Commensalism, more or less, describes our relationship to plants that feed us. They benefit in that we propagate them. We benefit with our lives. Plants benefit from intricate soil mycorrhizae relationships as well as interplanting with complimentary species. Plants move diurnally, breathing in and out as the sun rises and heats the world. Even woody shrubs like creosote do it, but particularly lettuces. Even my artichoke plant, which has had a second life in the cooler days of fall after going utterly dormant in the heat of summer, moves up and down in the warmth of the afternoon. She has silver and blue green leaves that etch the sunshine on the orange wall behind. I speak with my eyes as I watch their jagged shadows move in the earth’s rotation and orbit, the plants gesture of rise and fall.
Catherine Page Harris teaches Landscape Architecture at University of New Mexico. Recent projects include Ecotone, 3D scanned creosote shrubs; Poured Earth Collaborative’s Fabric Formed Poured Earth; and sharing a drink. Trans-species Repast–sharing meals with animals in North Jutland, Denmark and Vermont, US to explore hierarchy, resources, and landscape, showed at the Center for Contemporary Art; UNM Art Museum; the Land Shape Festival in Hanstholm, Denmark; Marble House Project, Vermont; and the Wignall Museum, California.
Love and Death
By Heidi Fillingim
I ended my relationship with Dash, my OmniPod insulin pump. I thought he was the one. I’d never felt the way I did with him, like I had with anyone that had come before. I didn’t know a love like this could even exist. How was I to know that a scientific marvel would sweep me off my feet?
My endocrinologist introduced us over two years ago in her office in Denver. I was smitten after the first insertion. He completely changed my life. I went from injecting myself with five shots per day to inserting Dash, a tiny pump, into my body every three days. My life had never felt so carefree. There were moments, however brief, that I swear I forgot I was diabetic. With Dash I was using a beeper-sized device to administer insulin. No longer was I stressing about the temperature of my insulin or breaking an insulin vial.
Dash was the yin to my yang. He loved math. I hated math. He calculated the amount of insulin units I needed anytime I asked him, day or night. Dash could dose me in half units. He could even subtract insulin. Or stop it if I asked him to do so. With the touch of a button I could avoid a low blood sugar. I had more control over my body than I had ever had before. I could change the course of my blood sugar and balance readings on an entirely new level. He was a catch and a half.
Our relationship was challenged at every turn. Insurance companies tried to drive us apart. They told me I needed a prior authorization to keep seeing him. Dash was expensive. He broke the bank, even with insurance. He ran up a few of my credit cards. But how could I say no to him? Ultimately the struggle was worth it. Once you go Dash, you don’t go back.
Hindsight is a real bitch. I can clearly see all the red flags that I told myself weren’t there at the beginning. While I was caught up in my love affair with Dash, I overlooked a lot. I told myself none of the little annoyances and inconveniences mattered. His adhesive had always been subpar. I bought special adhesives made for Dash to try to secure him to my skin. Sometimes the extra adhesives worked, sometimes they didn’t.
He was always pulling away from me. His instructions said one thing, but his cannula, a small flexible tube, would always come loose and free itself from my skin. With the cannula exposed, no insulin would enter my body. I cursed him and stressed out every time he pulled that shit.
Communication is essential for any relationship. Dash promised he would warn me if insulin wasn’t pumping into my body through the cannula. In fact, he guaranteed it. Imagine my surprise when my blood sugar shot up out of nowhere. Often. Did he always communicate? Sure, when he felt like it, but it had to be on his terms. Rather than telling me he needed space, he shut down and gave me the silent treatment. His silence could have been the death of me.
From the beginning Dash promised to be there for me. Promises are great if there’s follow through, if not they’re just empty and useless. It’s the actions that seem to matter in a relationship. He wasn’t consistent and never owned up to his failings. How are you supposed to be with someone who can never take a shred of accountability for themselves?
When I called the OmniPod company to complain about Dash, which was frequent, they always told me the same thing. That he, the device, wasn’t perfect. Seriously? I’m not looking for perfection in this relationship, but how can I trust him if he shuts down every time things get hard?
The problem was I couldn’t rely on Dash when I needed him most. He acted like everything was fine and then his PDM, aka his brain, went out of commission and just shut off while we were on a trip together in Montana. I had packed extra Dashes, pumps, knowing full well he could shut me out at any time. I just wasn’t expecting, nor did I prepare for him to completely shut down. I didn’t even know that could happen. It probably would have been a good thing to mention on the box he came in. There was no reviving him at that point. At least that’s what the nice sales rep told me on the phone.
Dash hadn’t just ghosted me, he had abandoned me. The OmniPod company sent out a new brain for Dash. His new brain arrived 48 hours after I made the call to the company. When he showed up on my friend’s doorstep, I gave him the cold shoulder.
I decided we needed some time apart. For a good week and a half I was back to using needles five times per day. I’d like to tell you that it was easy to be without Dash, but it wasn’t. Dash had introduced me to a new way of living with my chronic disease. It was simple and so much more pleasant.
I gave in. I went back to Dash. Our fight was the first really big test of our relationship. I returned because I shoved down all the heartache he’d caused and told myself that this time things would be different. I wish I had known then, or seen through my denial, that we were never really meant to last.
Our happy reunion was brief. The last straws of our relationship were looming. Due to insulin shortages in New Mexico, the insulin I was prescribed was out of stock. The pharmacy tech found some similar insulin at another pharmacy. It wasn’t the same insulin prescribed to me, but it was insulin. I drove to the other pharmacy across town and paid twice the amount of money for the expensive substitute insulin.
For roughly three months I continued things with Dash, using this substitute insulin. I had always just figured insulin was insulin. I always used whatever version my insurance company would pay for. Let’s just say that Dash and the new insulin weren’t meshing. Dash became sullen and stopped participating in our relationship.
In no time, I grew lethargic and began gaining weight. My blood sugars went all over the place. I knew something was wrong because I’ve had the same body for 38 years. I went to my doctor. She couldn’t figure it out. I went to a weight loss specialist and they couldn’t figure it out.
Finally, after a few months I turned to Paula, a woman I had never actually met. I was desperate and I couldn’t get into an endocrinologist. I was finally on a waitlist to see one, but my appointment was months away. Paula is a diabetic nurse who specializes in insulin pumps. I had never met her. I still haven’t met her. Paula told me truth about Dash.
Dash was a snob and would only cooperate with a certain type of insulin, otherwise he’d malfunction. For months I had been using the wrong insulin. She told me I was very lucky not to be in a coma, or, worse, dead.
Did I finally dump Dash at this point? You’d think the answer would be a hard yes. But I convinced myself that the good things in our relationship outweighed the bad. With the correct insulin I started to feel better and my blood sugars normalized.
Everything looked good on paper, but I couldn’t help this nagging suspicion that something still didn’t feel quite right between us. Then on Christmas, Dash flaked on me for the second time in six months. His brain stopped working again. I charged it. No response. I was back on the phone with Dash’s makers. I didn’t get a replacement for Dash until four days later.
When the new Dash arrived I felt indifferent. I didn’t take him out of the box. I was back on syringes. I couldn’t tell if it was just in my head, or if I actually felt better in Dash’s absence. Should I go back to him? Chances are nothing had really changed. What was I doing? I had put all my trust in Dash, this new technology, that cost an arm and a leg and only worked when he wanted. When had this become such a one-sided relationship?
We had our good times, but damn, he put me through the wringer. I gave him two years, 45 pounds, my waistline and nearly my life when things got really bad between us. No more I decided.
The crazy thing with Dash and his creators at the Insulet Corporation, is that they never really told me who Dash was. They failed to mention that he only liked a certain type of insulin or that he could and would stop working for no reason. He wasn’t a good communicator and he wasn’t able to see his faults or care enough to work on himself.
The more I thought about what went down with Dash and me, the angrier I became. I thought about burying his broken brain in the yard because he was dead to me. Instead, I took a hammer to him. I smashed Dash to bits. It was the closure I needed.
I nearly died for this relationship and I’m not a relationship person. I realize I fell for Dash’s potential, not Dash. I’m just thankful that I didn’t end up in a coma or die. After all, love is great but is it great enough to end up in a coma or a coffin? I think not
Heidi Fillingim is a writer who likes to write about the absurdities of her life with a humorous twist. She lives in Santa Fe, where, she writes, she “could eat tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”