The Kudzu Eaters
by Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom
In the old days, we burned the bodies of fossils to keep warm. We loved roads so much, we drove them until we turned the rivers to oil and rock salt. We choked the albatrosses around their unlucky necks with plastic six-pack rings. The frigatebirds set sail on rafts of trash and were never seen again.
Some of us burned trees or animal dung for fuel, if we couldn’t afford the carcasses of long-dead creatures. The prehistoric remains stained our hands darker than blood. Those of us with power and privilege demanded they be burned far away from our homes, so we didn’t have to taste the soot or see the oil spills. Countries fought wars over who got to control the bodies of fossilized plankton buried beneath the ground. The younger things we killed just didn’t burn as brightly.
It used to be that not all children learned how to swim. Most lived in cities where all the rivers and ponds were paved over. It’s hard to imagine, now that the cities flood each spring, with the chorus of frogs echoing off the husks of old skyscrapers, with the flotsam and jetsam rolling in on the tide and bumping against the prows of our boats. We have become such good scavengers.
We used to think the end of the world would come from big things like nuclear bombs, not small things like raindrops and mosquitoes and molecules of carbon. We used to think the end of the world would happen when human civilization fell, not realizing the world could go on just fine without us. The clever raccoons, crows, rats, and coyotes have flourished, and we respect them as fellow survivors.
Rich people used to fly in airplanes eating caviar and grapes and carrying bouquets of long-stemmed roses grown in greenhouses, while on the ground below there were people starving. When the collapse came, we didn’t eat the rich, though it was tempting; we only made them share. A simple thing they should have learned in school as very young children.
Now we eat zebra mussels, kudzu leaves, and grilled nutria. We gather bouquets of honeysuckle, licking drops of nectar from their blossoms. We roast cicadas when they have a banner year. We grow crops that can survive the heat. Most of the cows have gone feral.
We use what fuel and technology we have left to make medicine for the sick, the very young and very old. It’s old-fashioned to say someone saved the world, since humans aren’t the whole world, but still we say that librarians and doctors and nurses are the ones who saved us. When electricity became scarce, we all started reading more books. Not that books always make you a kinder person—it depends on the book and what you take from it—but it was a place to start.
Ours is not a utopia. There are still quarrels, loss, and violence. We may die from drowning or malaria, but we are less likely than our ancestors to die in a mass shooting, in a prison, in a war. We used to believe there was no other way to live than the way we had always lived. But we remade our laws after the collapse. We unmade the prison walls and tanks and fighter jets.
Our children ask us, Will the people of the far-distant future burn our fossils to power their machines? When we die and our bodies are pressed beneath the weight of the earth, if we stay there long enough, will be become coal someday, or diamonds? We say, To tell you the truth, we don’t know. Our prayer for you, dear ones, is that you live long enough to learn how much you don’t know.