On Sarah Ghazal Ali

Words by Madeleine Bazil

Welcome to Confluences, a column on art, kinship and life.

This week, as the synthesis chapter of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is released, I’m thinking about our current theme of “roots” in (fittingly) a rhizomatic sense: the interconnected relationship of mutual existence between humanity and the larger natural world of which we are a part. “The system is intentionally structured so that we don’t sense our relationship with the natural, living world because then we won’t feel called to protect it,” food grower and author Claire Ratinon says in Issue #13. “When we feel our connection with the natural world, we realise that these exploitive systems are destroying our bodies along with the possibility of a thriving future.” 

I hear an echo of Ratinon’s words in Pakistani-American poet Sarah Ghazal Ali’s The Origin of Species. “There are still those who remember / when our creekside apartment / was an ecotone, oakbrush unchewed / by goats who today crowd my window,” reads part of the poem. Throughout, Ghazal Ali’s speaker grapples with a keen awareness of how roots - both botanical and human - impact our lives today and in an imagined future. Baked into this awareness is what I read as a sense of climate anxiety. The speaker mulls over the quandary of whether or not to have children in the same breath as she describes “the reach of wildfires / we’ve come to expect” and aeons of time “barreling forward.” This is a poem preoccupied with the hard edges of time - when she says “sleep / is a minor death, a rehearsal in believing / in some certain after,” she may as well also be referring to life at large as a similar exercise in belief of a certain future. What can or must be done, the speaker seems to be asking, to ensure the possibility of a livable world for hypothetical children, for future species?

Ultimately, this is a meditation not only on loss but also on the centrality of hope and concerted effort.

“The cost of faith is the molting of memory,” states a particularly striking line in its entirety. For the speaker, to observe - and live within - the ruins of lost ecologies is to come face-to-face with the knowledge that the same fate awaits inhabitants of the future: “Years from now, earth all but effigy, / the anthropologists will find us, / our pixel-laden grins ossified / behind glass. A tragedy began. / A tragedy is beginning. / When will the tragedy begin?” Yet even as the poem’s speaker ruminates on such tragedy, I read the poem with a kernel of hope. Ultimately, this is a meditation not only on loss but also on the centrality of hope and concerted effort. Kalpana Arias points out in Issue #13 that “in the past two decades, scientists have confirmed that the Earth’s biodiverse ‘wilderness’ is not nature’s autonomous will, but the result of humanity’s interaction with nature over thousands of years.” The recent IPCC synthesis report (the final segment of data and takeaways after a nine-year assessment cycle) renders it more evident than ever before that reimagining the root of our human relationship interaction with nature is the only way to navigate the narrow pathway to a livable climate future. The report is, as The Guardian put it back in 2021, the “starkest warning yet” regarding climate change.

One key finding, as conservationist and researcher Dr Charlie Gardner explains, is that when it comes to climate response, adaptation and mitigation options, “conserving remaining ecosystems has more mitigation potential than wind power, and almost as much as solar.” Preserving our botanical and environmental roots is essential - and memory, rather than a symptom of climate despair, becomes not only a tonic but an essential ingredient of this process.

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Words by

Madeleine Bazil

Madeleine Bazil is a multidisciplinary artist and writer interested in memory, intimacy, and the ways we navigate worlds - real and imagined. She c… Learn more

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