Shadow Mountain

The honey I stir into my tea raises eyebrows when friends see it’s called Superfund honey.
Credit: “CP” © Magali Pijpers

The honey I stir into my tea raises eyebrows when friends see it’s called Superfund honey. It comes from a beekeeper operating out of Collinsville, Oklahoma. He keeps bees at a former zinc smelter.

Oklahoma’s EPA Region 6, near Collinsville, is awash in crimson clover; the roots don’t absorb heavy metals, so honeybees—over one million of them—have migrated to the clover fields. A beekeeper at the former smelter has called the fields a golden place. Saying wistfully, “It’s remediated, it’s back. It’s beautiful. It’s clean.”

The honey echoes the smelter. When I eat it, I’m reminded of bee orchids, flowers that gives the illusion of having a female bumble bee perched on their petals. If the orchid outlasts declining bee populations, it will become a bee memorial. My body performs memory, recalls my ancestors and also the places I’ve lived that constitute my being in a manner like genetics. I am both who and where I’ve come from; I echo.

The honey and smelter can be thought of as the echoes of the “chemical sublime.”

What scholar Nicholas Shapiro defines as “a sensuous reasoning that indicates how open our bodies are and amplifies—rather than extinguishes—the tensions, agitations, and dissident potentiality of large-scale hazards” moving into and then within us.

Ecologies of entanglement both surround and make me: the small changes passing between bodies and places, species and atmospheres, across time, collapse in the sweetness that coats my tongue or the orchid’s petal that mirrors a bee; sweat or semen or breast milk; air or soil or water. The zinc smelter is demolished and lives inside my mouth.

When I absorb toxins, my body is transformed into a site of post-industrial waste; I have become this damaged ecology. The chemicals that quietly emanate in my home, the foods I eat, the air I breathe, the water I drink, becomes me. I breath out, reproduce, and seep the world back. For Shapiro, the “chemical sublime” elevates the symptomatic—headaches, disease, my difficult pregnancy—into “events that stir ethical consideration and potential intervention.” Even in their abstract occurrence, the point to linger on isn’t proof; it’s potentiality. The body is in a sublime entanglement with the natural world. The chemical sublime is thrilling, terrifying, unifying—it stitches bodies to places in strange, enchanting ways. I suck my spoon or my lover’s body and take in the sweetness of this place.

I recall a line from an Éireann Lorsung poem:

not “the body” indefinite

and general but my own, your own.

Not “the body” indefinite but maybe neither my own. Maybe this body with you, here.

I eat the honey the couple who lives next door bottles, too, from the bees they keep out back by the alley. When I eat the honey they bottle I think how we are, all of us, precise ecologies. I eat honey, and become more this block, drenched in dusk light. I eat honey and wonder at the mysterious lesions on my brain and what particulate made them and where. Was it a gradual violence? A winter, a summer, or many? Air or water or soil? I eat and wonder at my father’s seeping stomach. My son’s spongy young lungs. How sublime our bodies are, how sublime faces when grinning. I want to watch everyone throw their chins back and send their necks long, laughing. I think how stunning my dead were, laughing, how good it feels to be a body tangled in another’s breath-on-a-bare-neck embrace, and recall a note I keep taped above my desk: “Our continued survival demands that we learn something about how best to live and die within the entanglements we have. We need both senses of monstrosity: entanglement as life and as danger.”

Now it is dusk and the sun drops low over the pollinators, sending a wet gold light down the block, coating everything.

Notes on “Shadow Mountain”

Kelly Bostian, “It Used to House a Zinc Smelter. Now the Collinsville Superfund Site Houses Rescued Honeybees,” Tulsa World, July 31, 2019.

EPA, “EPA Celebrates 20 Years of Superfund Redevelopment; Recognizes Restored Site in Collinsville, Okla., for Reuse as Honeybee Habitat,” July 31, 2019.

Information about the Collinsville smelter comes from the two sources above.

Patricia Shannon, “This Pretty Orchid Looks Like a Bumble Bee (And It Helps Attract Them, Too!),” Southern Living, accessed November 15, 2021.

Nicholas Shapiro, “Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning, and the Chemical Sublime,” Cultural Anthropologie 30, no. 3 (2015): 368–93.

I quote and paraphrase Shapiro’s scholarship throughout this essay. Shapiro observes, “Bodies uncover invisible toxins with their wounding” (384). His work on bodily attunement to environmental and domestic toxicants positions itself as “the beginning of a confrontation, not its resolution” (381). Shapiro writes, “If bodily reasoning is the dynamic process through which knowledge of individual spaces of chronic exposure is somatically attained, the chemical sublime is the accrual of bodily reasoning to the point of articulating the patterned practices and infrastructures that distribute pockets of exposure across space. It is the traversing of a threshold of chemical awareness whereby the irritations of one’s immediate environment become agitations to apprehend and attenuate the effects of vast toxic infrastructures” (380).

Éireann Lorsung, The Century (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2020), 6.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, eds., “Introduction: Haunted Landscapes of the Anthropocene,” Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), M4.

KATHRYN SAVAGE’s debut lyric essay collection, Groundglass, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. She is the recipient of the James Wright Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and her writing has appeared in American Short FictionBOMB MagazineEcotone MagazinePoets.orgWorld Literature Today, and the anthology Rewilding: Poems for the Environment.

MAGALI PIJPERS is a photographer and writer based in Austin, Texas, with work appearing in Dazed & ConfusedPIG MagazineTar Mag, and Synonym Journal

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out Kathryn Savage’s forthcoming book, Groundglass, from which it is excerpted. Coming soon from Coffee House Press!

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