by Aparna Paul
“To tend the earth is always then to tend our destiny, our freedom, and our hope.” — bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place
“The Land” has always had a fraught history with the land. Cleveland strives to be a green city on a blue lake, moving away from its history with environmental disaster like the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969, a blaze accepted by residents as an inevitable side effect of industries that had brought prosperity to the region. Throughout the city’s history, there have always been questions of industry versus nature. Since the Cuyahoga River fire, Cleveland has been plagued with other environmental difficulties: increased air pollutants, decreased tree canopies, abandoned shells of industry, climate change inequity.
Through it all, how can we, as writers in Cleveland, maintain a sense of place when the place around us is changing so dramatically? How can we redress the violence that has been done to the land and its people, while elevating the stories of those Indigenous populations that were here first? How can we reflect on the environment—both natural and built—and move towards fully understanding our relationship to the land and with The Land?
When we try to separate the two—land and Land—it proves spectacularly challenging. In a city haunted by the specter of industry, and before that, the atrocities done to Indigenous people, and before all that, the gouged impressions of a retreating glacier 10,000 years ago, it becomes difficult to differentiate the ghosts. Still, as one writer in this anthology notes, “But haunted doesn’t mean dead; on the contrary, haunted places crackle with the energetic collisions of noisy ghosts, inviting the rest of us to see and make history worthy of their racket.”
This interconnection complicates all of our perceived binaries: man vs. nature; environment vs. industry; progress vs. tradition; past vs. future. In this anthology, there are moments of blurriness between all these supposed boundaries—we see how “a tree dies like a city” and how “Cleveland winter seeps into bones” and how “this valley longs for revenge.”
What is astonishing to me about many of the pieces in this anthology is they look towards this immensely complex entanglement of nature and industry and rural and urban and land and sky, and they refuse to look away. Even the parts that are difficult—the water and the warfront, the loneliness at the heart of a frozen lake, the so-called weeds in the front lawn, the gaping corpses of industry—are made beautiful, joyful, lovely, with the words of these authors. They find comfort in the river; they find story in the soil; they find hope as high as the Terminal Tower.
It’s been over 50 years since the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Its surface today is sparkling, even when it’s under Cleveland’s characteristic gray skies. It runs swiftly sometimes, stands calmly at others, but always, there’s a moment when you peer down into the water, and it’s a delightful and unexpected surprise to see yourself & the tendrils of a skyline & the rolling clouds all at once. I hope that this anthology, too, will offer you such a reflection.
This project is presented in partnership with The Land.