Selfishly, as a writer, I’m also worried about the seasons to come.
It’s fire season in California, and I’ve been carrying a seashell around my LA apartment. Something won’t let me leave it where it usually sits on my bathroom windowsill, gathering dust. A smooth, pearly sea snail shell the size of a golf ball, it has a canine aspect, its coiled tip cocked like an expectant snout and a white rump round as the moon.
We share an elliptical history. I’ve had the seashell since 2015, when I inherited it from my maternal grandmother, Mercedes, after she died. This is only remarkable because I gave it to her some twenty-five years ago, when I was about ten. Under the lights of a Jersey Shore tourist shop, its opalescence, cream that flashed teal and rose, caught my preteen eye and made me think of her. The shell seemed like some nautical ideal spun from the sea.
I realize now that someone had worked away the creature’s armor, its whorls and ridges, to reveal this holographic, soft-serve ripple. Because it’s lost the dings and chips and hollows most found shells have—those clues that speak of hunts and hunters, of storms and coves and seasons—it seems curiously blank, the signs of time—of life—erased.
And yet the shell has crossed through time, finding itself back with me. It seems, this way, to be always in the process of collapsing time, so that it exists simply as an open node between me and my grandmother, without regard for order in this story. The effect is portal-like, with a connective quality that reminds me of art. This feels precious, for some reason; I realize that its preciousness has worried me.
A season of worry: It’s early September, after hurricane Ida, and my parents have been bailing out the basement of the house in New Jersey where I spent my teenage years, across town from where my grandparents once lived. Mud got in, my mom says on the phone as she blames a neighbor’s construction site. She shrugs at the task; compared with many people, they got off easy. Anyway, the state I’ve moved to is covered in smoke, as she points out. She asks about the air, posing it as a statement: You’re not affected yet by the fires up north.
Not yet, I say, though my partner was smoked out from a trip in the mountains, and I’ve canceled our camping plans along the coast. I’m anxious, and I can tell Mom is too; her anxiety is mine, another inheritance I didn’t expect.
I realize that its preciousness has worried me.
The seashell is useful for grounding—maybe this is partly why I’ve been toting it around. Throughout the day I’ll pick it up, curling my index finger in the yellowed cavity, holding it to my ear for that ocean sound. Its tip is pointy but not sharp and makes a decent acupressure massager for the ball of my hand. The texture, all but smoothed away, is still faintly ribbed like an aging fingernail. It’s pleasing to rub.
It isn’t the only marine artifact in my apartment. Here in my second-story rental unit at the eastern extent of the Santa Monica Mountains, due south of the San Gabriels, twenty minutes to an hour from the Pacific depending on traffic, I can look whenever at an indigo mussel from Marin, a lunar pebble from Long Island, a fossilized sea snail from Malibu’s sandstones, a granite orb from a cove in Maine, north of Portland. As I put my bag through security at the Portland airport, the TSA agent quipped, What do you have in here, rocks? Yes.
In Hawai‘i, where my partner grew up, it’s forbidden to take sand or stones from beaches, out of respect for Pele. Collecting and selling shells is a practice descendeddirectly from Europe’s brutal trade-fueled imperialism, starting with the Dutch East India Company’s voyages to Asia and the Pacific in the seventeenth century. I realize that my impulse to collect is uncomfortably colonial, this entitlement to extract and hoard for myself what seems unique and beautiful. As if any of us can really own any part of nature, as if my apartment is separate from the air outside, as if any of our homes are safe from fire or storm.
And yet I treasure the shells and stones I’ve taken. Their tumbled bodies speak of geological and ecological histories; their looping temporality comforts me. And of course I think they look nice, though like all decor, mostly they recede into the background until I have to clean. When I do, they leave a dust-free shadow on the windowsills, which are perpetually creeping gray with soot off the highways—the 5, the 2, the 101—and, come fire season, where we are now, from smoke. The fires, scientists say, are getting worse. Last year, as the Bobcat Fire seared through the San Gabriels, I moved all the stones and shells, including this inherited one, off the darkening sills, taped around the windows to seal out ash, then put them back. I was grateful for something in my environment I could immediately improve.
For years, my grandma kept the shell on her kitchen windowsill above the sink, where it could draw her eyes outside. There was a creek a little way down the backyard, barely visible from the kitchen. We called it the trickle, and I saw it run high just once. The sound, thick and ominous as TV static, drew us to the window. The creek suddenly looked like horses, and they threatened to jump the bank to the house. The sight thrilled me, like a parallel universe in our little town had slid open.
I think I was always chasing portals like this, though they weren’t usually so exciting. The town we lived in is on a coastal plain in central Jersey, once Lenni-Lenape land, just southeast of the Watchung Mountains. The Watchungs are a venerable range, one formed by a clash of ice and lava between two and a half and one million years before the end of the Triassic. Being Late Triassic, they’re gentle now, lacking vigor, though when I was a child they seemed as enchanted as the Alps. Sometimes, my mom would drive us fifteen minutes from our plain into the Watchungs’ oaks and birches, our noses awake for the restless soils of each changing season. Sometimes something slid open, and I’d look beyond to another time and place. Actually, I’ve known no other way than to orient myself within a decoupage of imaginative landscapes: from my favorite books, TV shows, movies; from my family’s lore of Spain, Japan, and the Eastern Seaboard; and this way, with the shadow-sharpening of September or sugar-green of May. I’ve spent my life in constant conversation with companion peripheries, disparate vistas united as one kaleidoscopic view. Very often, what shifts them into focus has been some sense of simultaneous atmosphere. For so long, it seemed nature’s stories would never end.
In fact, the rains and snows and blooms of my childhood were so dependable that any meteorological weirdness (like the creek) lives large as any drama in my memory: the summer hailstorm beating the dash as my dad and I waited it out, a baseball game droning on the radio; the tornado that sent an oak branch into my friend’s second-floor bedroom; the blizzard of ’96 whose drifts swallowed our terrier whole. It’s odd, looking back, how joyfully these scenes suspend time, like holidays or rare vacations.
I’ve spent my life in constant conversation with companion peripheries, disparate vistas united as one kaleidoscopic view.
Simply put: Weather is mood. When it pelted rain in New Jersey’s deep July, I thought of typhoon season, mushi atsui, in the Tokyo I’d visited, and the people on the bridge in 1857’s Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi by Hiroshige, from a book of his woodblock prints my parents had in the house. In January, when the branches of the hollies my mom had planted were glazed thick with ice and salt scratched under my shoes on the path into school, when I felt something I had no name for, I’d feel a draft blow in off a favorite book, Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales: “I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” Thomas’s nostalgia melded inextricably with my own. If it snowed, or looked like snow, or if the wind was biting, or even if it rained, I felt part of something. Call it a vibe, a tune, a time, a place. It was weather as much as anything that placed me in common.
My grandma died suddenly of a heart attack one July. I’d visited her a couple months earlier at most and had taken photos around the house for some reason, including one through the kitchen window toward the trickle of a creek. When my mom called with the news, I was on O‘ahu staying with my partner’s family. I must have been in shock, because I stood in their yard for a while, and then I started to run. Their place was a few blocks from the beach, and though I’m not a runner, I instinctively sprinted there. The beach is long and flat. When I reached the sand, I found the zone that gets hardened by receding tide and ran on that.
When I did finally stop, I remember bending over and staring at the sand. I can still see it, as if looking through a lens. O‘ahu’s sand appears almost white, and unlike the famous black lava beaches of the Big Island, it’s mostly calcium carbonate, skeletons of corals and shells ground soft by fish and the Pacific. Now teal and blue had appeared there, kaleidoscopic bits and chips—not shells, but plastic broken from bottles and other debris. Propelled by current and storm, the waves had borne the plastic from Japan’s Tōhoku coast, which had been decimated by the tsunami four years earlier, chewing the bits along the way so that now they were here, under my feet, in common with sand, horrifically cheerful and so pervasive they, too, looked almost native. Like the shell I’d inherit, the plastic season’s arrival was easy to explain. Still, it felt like a haunting, a past made present that I should have anticipated but hadn’t.
When I used to see the shell at my abuela’s house, I had no expectation of getting it back. The little I understood of inheritance, as a concept, was that it arrived from behind, as it had arrived to whoever handed it down to you. But I was a mixed-race only child with grandparents on two continents, and I was also queer, I know now. A linear sequence seems inadequate to describe the way I, at least, need to experience time, as porous and almost spatial—since space is something one can traverse, given the opportunity. This shell, after all, has done that.
The linear, sequential nature of inheritance is the dominant metaphor used to argue the ethics of climate action: It’s our responsibility to those who will inherit (have already inherited) what we have or have not done, what we will or will not do. In this metaphor, we pass the planet down to future generations of life on earth, one way or the other. But in my lifetime, the generational timeline has shortened and begun to dissolve, run back on, and overflow itself, like a river encountering new current. For everyone, though for some more than others, the struggle for survival, health, and happiness is happening now. Our perception of the connection between past and future is changing. And because I have often found myself by traversing time, this change is changing me too.
When I first heard about solastalgia, in 2005, I was a freshman in college, about to choose my major in environmental studies. I thought I understood the word, coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003 to describe that particular distress caused by environmental change, a homesickness while still at home. What strikes me now when I look back over Albrecht’s definition—which I did not understand back then—is the emphasis on identity. Solastalgia is “characteristically a chronic condition, tied to the gradual erosion of identity” due to the “unwanted transformation” of a well-known place.
I suppose what is transforming against my want are the cross-temporal landscapes whose seasons have helped to make me who I am, that have given me solace and a sense of companionship—the books, the stories, the memories whose blizzards and blustery days I may personally experience less and less. Japanese maple, red leaves curled like cicada shells, that I climbed as a kid. Like beach days after the war that Grandma Lopez told me about. Clamming along Hamana-ko with my ojichan and dad when Dad was a boy. The coastal mist of California in spring, like the mists on Galicia’s coast, the region in Spain where my grandma’s family is from. Wild yeast in Shizuoka that I never got to taste, that will never taste the same. I thought all these landscapes would be relatable enough, like pop songs and love stories, that these at least would give us some shared fabric, some textile over which our pasts and futures might be embroidered. But every year my weather drifts from the seasons that came before, the summer nights get hotter, fire looms all year. I fear that even the landscapes of my imagination will be unrecognizable. That I will lose the portals, the diasporic view, and time will be a line, after all.
Selfishly, as a writer, I’m also worried about the seasons to come. Any details about weather I write now might lose context, seem jarring or mysterious for future readers. But of course, there has always been the danger of dated details and mistranslation. At its best and most basic, art is an act of hope for conversation when there is something complicated and confusing to say. Even and particularly when the people we need to talk to most are not around. That hope at least will endure.
After my grandma’s funeral, I stayed for a couple days with my parents in New Jersey, but I couldn’t bring myself to go to her house. I don’t know why I reacted this way, but it was that view out the kitchen, toward the creek, that I felt most unable to see again. I think I wanted it to stay the same. It had been a while since I’d gone to the creek at all. By then, in my twenties, I was too old to hear a flood warning without worry, too aware of the suffering, the destruction, the death it might cause. But it had been a good if childish feeling, for the landscape to take me by surprise all those years ago. To be thrilled and awed without the go bag. I wonder, if I’d been born fifty years later, if I’d have ever known that feeling.
One day, while I was staying at my parents’, the pearlescent coiled shell appeared in the bathroom cabinet, and I took it. Here, it sits on my desk in LA by my keyboard, and each time I glance at it, its color has shifted, the pearl glowing now a little peach, a little green in this late morning light. Technically, then, I didn’t inherit it at all.
Katie Okamoto's writing has appeared in Catapult, The Atlantic, Eater, TASTE, Metropolis, and BuzzFeed Reader, among other places. She participated in the 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop for non-fiction and memoir and is at work on a book. Formerly, Katie was the senior editor at Metropolis, the architecture and design magazine, in New York City. Find them at katieokamoto.com.