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The Sea Lettuce, an Owl’s Assassination, the Bag Company, the Space Billionaires, the Bad Mirror, a New Dream

| 15 min read

She had first seen the feed via an account maintained by an acquaintance. He had captioned the video loop, appropriated from the site where she was soon to spend so much time, “cleansing my eye holes on this verdant purity [green heart emoji, lettuce emoji, left-leering eye emoji].” An account named had commented, “mmmmmmhhm.” Someone else had written, “I’m an aspiring poet. If you have time to support. I would appreciate it if you could check out my work @poetryxray.”

The acquaintance had liked “mmmmmmhhm.” The acquaintance, an artist moderately famous for his text-based wall-hangings, had not liked @poetryxray’s comment. The video had nearly five-thousand views.

“what is that from?” she had messaged the acquaintance.

“So nice to hear from you!” he exclaimed. His percolating ellipses transformed into a URL, which she hearted, exiting the interface not to return. A few additional provocations from him dropped down. She swatted them away.

For she was on the site. Moving images were beamed toward her. Pixels appeared every few seconds and there was a constant sonic slurry: movement of gallons upon gallons, metric tons, she supposed, of water.

She switched over to her laptop.

The sea lettuce danced. That was its name, lettuce. But it was not crisp, rather pliant. It was enticing, like an edible fang or flag. It invited you to come hither, yes. It slowed occasionally, due to holdups in the transfer of data. Then it bowed, shivered shaggily as if apologetic, began wagging again. It fluttered like tattered mergarments or ragged hands or gloves that had no room for fingers. It was a bright, rich, chlorophyll-infused ribbon. It was blown upward then sank. It dangled, fluttered. It seemed abashed. It gathered itself and then—as if becoming elated—stretched once more. It was an almost painfully lucid green in shadow, yellow and even whitish and whimsical in light. It was an impossible green—if ice were in fact green instead of largely lacking in color, or if green were a sound and not a shade, she thought, gazing in admiration at its booming verdancy. Silver bubbles flashed along the ruffles of the lettuce’s soft fronds. They were instantly sucked away by currents.

She dragged the browser over to an ancillary desktop and left the stream playing there as she did other things. It occurred to her to be pleased that she was now engaging in a practice she associated with middle-aged people, watching a natural feature by way of an unmanned camera. She was hard at work and, at the same time, acting like a retired person, ha.

A friend of hers, a Californian experimental filmmaker whose online habits she considered beyond feral, had told her an unnerving story about a condor nest surveilled by rangers and published on the web. The movements of the bird when it “thought,” as the friend said, “no one was looking”: these movements were like the resident of an apartment going about her business. Actually, the condor had failed to carry out certain basic condor life functions, refusing to mate and, therefore, to produce eggs. One day, delivering what appeared to be a frown to the beady eye of the camera, this raptor abruptly departed. It was unclear what role the live stream had played in its decision to decamp. “Maybe it would have lived this way even if no one had been watching her,” mused the friend, mixing pronouns, perhaps deliberately.

Another friend spoke about an owl who had been “accidentally shot.” Because the friend’s description of the death of this bird was so disordered, it was difficult to tell if the owl was a social media star or simply an animal who lived in the woods. The friend was in active mourning.

“I’m not the kind of person who follows animals,” the friend had said. “I’m not like now what’s he doing.” There were, nevertheless, genuine tears in this friend’s eyes. The friend gasped and fingered the edge of her t-shirt. She and the friend, who did not live in the city and was merely visiting for the day, were walking the paved loop in Olmsted’s Central Park. They were gazing up at glistening skyscrapers set against a melted sherbet pile of cloud as day ended. It was once again summer in October.

She was not the sort of person who followed animals, either. But now she was the sort of person who followed underwater vegetation that clung to a round, obviously manmade surface that—in her fascination with the life, the incredible life of the incredible lettuce, the irrepressible lettuce of the sea—she did not bother to feel much interest about

There was a story about the lettuce: she had learned the story from a cursory search, and, in a way, it reminded her of a myth, an ancient tale of apocalypse, a fable. She read the story by way of a news aggregator, then proceeded to retell it to herself.

In 2009, a massive dump of sea lettuce had appeared on the beaches of the Brittany Coast. It was strewn about in green berms like grass freshly cut, soon to become hay. Someone had ridden their horse out on the beach among the mounds of marine vegetation, probably amused by the irregular roads created by the parting of the weed. The plants had begun, already, to decompose. Mushy mounds and a bad smell. A very bad smell. The horse, it was said, swayed. Its eyes rolled, revealing white behind black. It nickered insanely and fell to its knees. Its neck bowed and its long red tongue appeared. Everything in the shape of a U. Bending. Everything bending low and melting toward earth, as if in supplication. The horse no longer upright, folded now, its rider slack. Bow down, bow down. The fumes rise. Human time wiggles and dissolves.

Men in special suits had to carry the rider away from the beach to safety. Or had it been men in respirators?

Hermetically sealed figures wander a beach, as if on Mars.

In her mind’s eye, she makes the suits orange, color of emergency.

There was also a story about a man who was driving a truck filled to the brim with decomposing sea lettuce. He was supposed to dispose of it, apparently, just, like, cart it away, bye-bye, but then emanations from the cargo in the box rumbling behind him caused him to lose consciousness and subsequently drive into a wall. The collision with the structure resulted in fatality.

This was the power of the lettuce in great quantities.

For the lettuce was a kind of god.

However, the story of the truck appealed to her less, she had to say, than the story of the person on the horse. The horse, as she imagined it, folded like a swan. The lettuce had a metamorphic magic. The lettuce beamed enchantment as its cells broke down. She thought that perhaps in the—admittedly agrobusiness-free but still!—past, someone might have tried to explain weeds’ effects with recourse to the moods and dramas of deities, the sea personified and venting its rage. Of course, in the present, there was something of a tit-for-tat, as well, which is to say, cause and effect, which seemed relevant: excessive farming of the region had resulted in the seeping of large quantities of fertilizer into the sea. The lettuces absorbed it, became freakish, thrived. The lettuce was a kind of god and gods should not be provoked. It washed up onto beaches to unleash a deadly gas into the territory occupied by some humans who liked to farm in ludicrously irresponsible ways, among other humans, some of whom went horseback riding on the beach or drove box trucks and died.

Certain uses were permitted. But then you became defunct, because no one was watching what they were doing with their uses.

Ouch, a wall.

“They,” she muttered to herself. “Them.”

The line between the existence of Central Park and the non-existence of Central Park, for example: how thick was this line? It seemed to her that the line was thickened by power, but that was not a sufficient explanation. The power needed something to flow into, an idea about a way to tend.

She perceived that in the past something they called health—hygiene, sanity—made a way for the power to tend. It was not always wrong, exactly, to believe in health, hygiene, and sanity, but it was not incompatible with the reckless flow of power, either, which is the difficult thing about ideals. She thought often of the strangeness of Frederick Law Olmsted’s career, how he had had to forego college on account of partial blindness caused by poisoning by plants. It was as if the sumac, which was to say the urushiol, had taken Olmsted for itself, had marked him out. Olmsted became a farmer on Staten Island instead of a Yale-educated lawyer. He then became a journalist who wrote about farms and the lassitude of white workers in the slave-holding South. He later won a major commission through the graces of a mentor, Calvert Vaux.

But one had to say that it was also by means of a sort of disdain that Central Park had come about. Raised were the settlements established in the woody, then-wild lands. Seized by eminent domain was, for example, Seneca Village, now commemorated by a rather undersized metal plaque: … located from 81st to 89th Streets between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in what is now a section of Central Park, is important to the history of New York City because it may be Manhattan’s first prominent community of African American property owners.

Three churches and a school. 1600 people moved by the claim of the park. In view of recent research, it appears that residents and institutions of Seneca Village did not re-establish their community in another location.

For now the disdain of the past was something we could use to walk our dogs in for free if we didn’t happen to live too far away from it. The disdain of the past for settlements of marginalized property owners was now an admittedly beautiful place where she stood, watching a man who walked at the same hour she did each day, 4pm. She passed him each and every afternoon, observed him come toward her at a rapid clip, knees moving jerkily in determined haste. He carried a long wooden dowel across his shoulders and from this dowel hung approximately one-hundred FreshDirect bags, empty, swaying. They bounced dreamily, redly, whitely. There were photographic images of raspberries printed on them. The first time she saw this man, hurrying across the park with his bags with their images of oversized raspberries, she had wondered if there might exist such a thing as a clandestine market for disused FreshDirect bags and when she had arrived home after her walk she had googled, “freshdirect bags recycling resale.” But it turned out that there was no such clandestine market, or if there was, it was a very, very clandestine one indeed, whose scrupulous participants were keeping things very much offline. A FreshDirect customer, overwhelmed by the quantity of useful receptacles she was accumulating, had posted a screed on her blog:

I made the decision to put my stack of FreshDirect bags on eBay without any expectation that someone would be interested in them. I was bored and annoyed and this was an experiment in absurdity (welcome to my life). I created a seven-day auction, with a starting bid of $1.50, then promptly forgot that I had done so and went about my afternoon. A week later, eBay’s algorithm emailed me to say, “Great news, your item sold. Now it’s time to get it ready.” F$%#. A victim of my own success! I had to lug a 12- f$%#ing-pound box to the post office, and I was none too thrilled about this. What on Earth had made me assign myself this insane chore?! Why didn’t I just toss these f$%#ing “reusable” bags in the f$%#ing bin? These were the deep questions I pondered, marveling at the position I had for some unknowable reason put myself in. Reader, I shipped the bags to New Mexico, paying far more than I had won in the auction. By the by, it was not at all lost on me how meaningless this transaction would be, in terms of saving the environment.

It appeared that, although since July of 2020 people had known that COVID-19 was not spread via surfaces, some 18 months later FreshDirect was still taking no chances. The company would not take its bags back. The company was apparently now also a bag-manufacturing and distribution company, having replaced the “disposable” plastic grocery bags (Thank You plus rose) with new, more durable, non-disposable vessels. The company wrote on its website, “FreshDirect has launched a program to connect our customers with local community organizations that have a need for reusable bags.” She wondered if it cost these “partners” time, which would be money, to take the bags in. Probably they were fielding emails and calls all week: Yes, we could take your bags but we already have too many. No, we don’t know when we are going to need more. No, we don’t know why it still says that on their site. No, please don’t come down here and leave them in front of the door because we can’t get in and out of the building.

What was the new disdain? Of course, the new disdain was for @poetryxray, for starters, the social media user to whom the successful artist would never respond. The new disdain was also for people who liked convenience and also liked food. Everyone carried a FreshDirect bag now, whether they used the company’s services or not. They had at least one and perhaps many more. The new disdain was for also them, these secondary and tertiary folks, even as they generously advertised the existence of FreshDirect as they went about the business of living. The new disdain infused FreshDirect’s power to make everyone have empty raspberry-patterned bags as a sort of property they needed to maintain, whether they wanted to maintain it or not. The new disdain was also for the sea lettuce. It was right there being its godlike self and yet they had fed it without even knowing they were doing so, because they could not imagine that it might be wrong to dump massive quantities of fertilizer into the sea. Or perhaps they had known that they were feeding it and that it was wrong to dump a football field of fertilizer into the sea and they did not care. Their disdain carried them forward in their puffy agency, like a magnificent balloon in the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Yet, the lettuce had spoken. It had come ashore and had its say. Uninvited, it had crept up and said, Hello. I think I will sit here and decompose.

And so she watched the lettuce, adoring it, passionate and relieved. The lettuce grew. She wondered if one day it would speak.

The place where the sea lettuce was growing was also a kind of park—or, it might one day be a park. For now, it was an experiment. Its authors compared it to Olmsted’s Bostonian parks project, the Emerald Necklace, but she saw this as a limited sort of analogy—or, rather an analogy that was in fact inside out: for it was not that the project, to create a series of a modular, interlinked, floating vegetated mats for flood damage mitigation resembled the Emerald Necklace in its ambitions, but rather that the Emerald Necklace had come, over time, to seem to resemble the current, as-yet-unrealized project of the modular, interlinked, floating vegetated mats. That was history for you. It was very hard to see and usually (maddeningly) constituted itself in reverse.

Meanwhile, the billionaires had experienced divorce and wanted to go to outer space. She had also gotten divorced, but it didn’t make her want to terraform under conditions of nearly instant exposure to lethal levels of radiation. What divorce had made her long to be able to do was to look at something, anything, anything at all, and have the feeling that she did not exist inside a state of total emergency. Because of the fickleness of human memory, she was no longer able to discern if the feeling of the state of total emergency arose from the end of her relationship or the apparently impending end of the world. In either case, because the internet had been constructed by scientists and was therefore designed for the sharing of anonymized information not the sharing of personal selves, whenever she gazed into it, her subjectivity was vaporized. Poof. It was a mirror yet confirmed nothing. Or, it had been such a mirror, before she, Narcissus-like, had discovered the window onto the lettuce.

One night, in a new blessing, the sea lettuce sent her a dream: Boston, a city where she had gone to college and which she generally disliked, had flooded and become strangely likable. Everyone went everywhere in boats. People disported themselves on floating bridges in ponchos and grasses grew from what seemed to be platforms in the gentle grayish waves. The brightness of the sun was astounding and inspired in her a thudding, reverberating cheer. Could it be, she thought, squinting in the dazzling reflections that arose like phantoms amid the mist of waterspouts and veering, chiming gulls, that even after the end of the world we may be happy? It seemed unlikely, but during the dream it was always Saturday.

Lucy Ives has contributed to such magazines as Aperture, Artforum, and Vogue. Her third novel, Life Is Everywhere, will be published by Graywolf Press in October 2022.

The Emerald Tutu  is an NSF-funded research project working to design and implement massive floating biomass-based storm protection infrastructure for coastal urban areas such as Boston, Massachusetts. The interconnected, anchored network of biomass modules absorbs wave energy and reduces flooding, storm damage, and erosion on shore while improving water quality. The floating modules are seeded with Spartina alterniflora (marsh grass) at the surface and many aquatic flora, such as Ulva lactuca (sea lettuce), volunteer below the waterline adding significant mass and frictional surface area.

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