The Incarnation of Nelmi Jane

A girl born 45 years in the future learns from...
The Incarnation of Nelmi Jane
Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin
Author Kitt Healy

Editor’s note: The Water Sustainability and Climate project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison collaborated with other groups to launch the Our Waters, Our Future Writing Contest in January. The group–including the UW-Madison Center for Limnology, Sustain Dane and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters–sought short stories reflecting visions for positive futures for the watershed. This is the runner-up piece.

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You asked me to tell you the story of your birth. Try to be still while I remember. I know it’s hard when the rain thrums our house and the puddles outside are growing. You want to go splashing. Well, so do I, even if it’s a last act for your grandma’s old knees. But it’s important that you hear this now. Soon you will be a grown up. You need to know why you are here.

You’re confused. Believe me, I know the feeling. Hand me my glasses? Thank you. Now have a lemon candy. We didn’t used to grow lemons in Wisconsin, but that is a story for another time. Now, listen to the story of your birth.

You were born on Nov. 17, in Madison, Wisconsin. Nelmi Jane Mitchell. You were born in 2061, the 30th anniversary of the Global Climate and Water Accord. This was our greatest attempt as a species to quit the mischief of earlier centuries. The accord forced deep changes in our economy to end the warming that was re-making our world. It was a political marvel. Even the most willingly blind leaders could no longer ignore the devastation we had wrought.

By the time of your birth, the accord had halted the destruction of rainforests, and slowed the pollution of oceans. One by one, oil drills fell still as we opted for solar and less extractive options. Billions of trees were planted to cool the earth and keep its soil in place. Agriculture worldwide became 30 percent more perennial. We built smaller houses, like the sturdy bungalow around us now. In fact, our whole neighborhood dates back to the 2040s and is named for a game people once played here. Always be proud to live on the golf course, Nelmi. Every vegetable we harvest from this yard is an act of revival.

In Wisconsin, we felt the effects of the accord most acutely when the River Refuges were created. State leaders calculated the amount of money gained from three decades of corporate tax breaks and used it to create a network of protected forest and prairie along thousands of miles of waterways. This is how your grandfather became head forester at the Yahara River Refuge. All 160 square miles of it. You knew that he worked there, yes. But did you know it was his design?

It’s true. Many of the trees you love to climb were saplings in his gentle hands. Likewise with the slender canes that became sprawling brambles, the handfuls of seed that became patches of prairie, the shovel-loads of soil that became a forest’s worth of mycelia. Your grandpa’s reforestation and earthworks projects slowed the water running off the region’s wasted farm fields. They held the banks of rivers, streams and lakes in place. And they created a corridor for wildlife from the north–to migrate, to hunt, to graze, to keep the community intact. Of course the refuge also grew you into this scrappy otter of a girl. And you will grow up to protect it.

The Climate and Water Accord also funded changes in how we grazed our animals. Did you know that? Your dad moves his dairy herd between paddocks every few hours, now; yes? Yes. And he moves them through the forest? I didn’t know. How wonderful. It used to be that we just let the animals out in a huge area, allowing them to eat all the sweetest grass and never giving the land a chance recover. When it rained, water flooded the pastures, washing nutrients into the rivers and lakes, causing great blooms of toxic algae. The shift to management intensive grazing helped prevent that. I helped too, when I became the state grazing specialist in 2036.

Yes, your old grandmother was a scientist people listened too. My photo still hangs in the halls of the university. But that is another story for another time. You can barely sit long enough to hear this one story. Try to be still. Like all stories, yours is woven of many fibers and each takes time to recount properly.

As a unified planet, we made tremendous changes to slow the warming after 2031. But we weren’t quick enough to save the snows. 2046 was the last winter of snow for 15 years. Many trees died without their period of dormancy. Plant disease hobbled agriculture. Too much water evaporated, and then too much came down in rainstorms and floods. Don’t worry, this storm today won’t make a flood. This storm is barely a sweat compared to the storms when your father was a boy.

Crippling droughts followed the periods of rain, because we hadn’t learned how to keep the water on the land. We watched our fields become rivers and then dry into deserts. Cows lost hope and wandered away to die. I remember harvesting dry cobs of blue corn on New Year’s Eve the year the snows vanished. I remember wearing short sleeves and open shoes. It hadn’t rained in two months. The air was filled with the tapping of woodpeckers, gorging themselves on insects in dead trees. Many people fled north to Canada that year. Many were people who had come here from the west, less than a generation before. Still, your grandfather and I believed a better future was coming, perhaps in spite of the evidence.

Listen, my granddaughter. This is the world you came into. We had made heroic changes, but things got worse before they got better. Until you were born. You were conceived in the mind of a cooler time. And you came to restore balance.

Long before your parents met at the Walker School for Environmental Studies; long before your grandfather first took my hand as the sun set over Lake Mendota; long before my ancestors came over from Europe, and even before your grandfathers’ ancestors followed herds of big game across the vast oak savannahs to build villages here–long ago, this land was covered in perpetual snow.

Mountains of ice and rivers of wind moved through Wisconsin in ancient times, flattening valleys, raising moraines and leaving the rivers, lakes and streams to run like gossip between them. That cold and snow made our homeland what it is. Every creature that belongs here depends on winter for rest and renewal. Winters may never be as they were in my parents’ youth, but I now believe they can be sufficient. Because on the day you were born, the vision of the 2031 accord finally came to life.

Nelmi, something about you carries winter with it. Do you remember the name your grandfather gave you before he died? Comes-With-Snow. If you can sit a little longer, I will tell you why.

You were born Nov. 17, 2061. When your mother felt her early pains, and your father began chattering endlessly with excitement, and your grandfather cleaned the house, singing songs to guide you through, I went for a walk in the river refuge. I brought wild rice harvested from Lake Wingra and a bundle of dried lavender. The trees that survived the warming were full-grown, shedding their leaves to invite winter in. The riverbanks were aflame with sumac, and the copper leaves of raspberry. It had been five years since the last major flood in the Yahara watershed, and drought had begun to take its hot breath elsewhere. The river ran clean and clear. The refuge was our solution to the problems of the past. You were our prayer for the future.

My favorite tree in the river refuge was a great old cottonwood. Its lowest branch leaned out over the river, thick and steady enough to support a man. This tree had survived the building of suburbs, then the warm years and the droughts and floods of the ’40s and ’50s. It was much older than I, but we had a kinship. Slowly, on my hands and knees, I crept out onto the low branch, I sat and took off my shoes. The cold clean water pricked my feet awake.

For many hours, I watched the currents of the Yahara braid themselves from many into one, and fray back to many. I grew too cold to sit any longer, and then too cold to move. One by one I dropped the grains of rice into the river, and crushed the lavender in my hands. I asked the river for your safety and your health, and to give your parents peace. Miles away, your mother threw back her head howling and you came swimming out, breathed in your spirit and shouted your first opinions to your weeping father.

Out on the branch, I gathered my strength to come and meet you. But, something on the opposite bank caught my eye. It was another eye, a grey-green eye. It watched me. Over the gurgling river I heard nothing, and I smelled nothing above the autumnal scent of decay. But in the haughty afternoon light I saw a wolf as clearly as I see you now. Holding me in its gaze, the wolf bent and drank from the river. Turning slowly onto my belly, I dipped my hand and did the same. As the wolf turned and walked away, my chest tightened with what first seemed like grief; but I soon realized it was a thunderous hope, unlike anything I’d ever allowed myself to feel. And then, as if the great mystery needed one more miracle to make me a true believer, it began to snow.

Kitt Healy is the second-place winner of the Our Water, Our Future writing contest. She is a masters student in Horticulture and Agroecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Originally from Chicago, Healy says she has a strong affinity for beer and brats, making Wisconsin the perfect adopted home. She lives on Madison’s east side with her fiance.

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