Glitter in the wreckage: short fiction, collective grief, and remote connection / Claire Carroll

[This essay was written in June 2021 – ed.]

In spring 2020, I developed an obsession with the idea of collective grief. This is probably not surprising, given that we were in the midst of a global pandemic. I was supposed to be using this time to plan and write a series of short stories set in a dystopian British Isles of the near future. My collection of short stories was intended to imagine the future of our country as it further subsided, both ecologically and politically. I wanted to explore climate fiction from a geographically British perspective; interrogating the possibilities for writing that reflected the experience of living here as the world changes. But before I had made much progress with the project, the real world collapsed into my speculative pitch. My plan for spring 2020 had been to visit locations to research settings for my stories, instead I found myself wandering along country lanes on Google Earth or descending Wikipedia rabbit holes. On one occasion, I came across a news story from the winter of 2019, that told of the mysterious mass death of hundreds of starlings, found by a local resident on a quiet lane one morning on Anglesey. This became the prompt that developed into my story, ‘Wreck Event’.

An unexplained mass bird death is known by ornithologists as a ‘wreck event’ or simply, a ‘wreck’. This short, evocative word is one that we might associate more closely with destruction of ships at sea, or other vehicles in states of annihilation: mangled cars on motorway sidings; pieces of aeroplane strewn across a mountainside. ‘Wreck’ implies absolute, violent disrepair and a permanent state change. For me, it’s a word that comprises something worse than its more elaborate synonyms. It’s a word that points to the obliteration of something; a ruining from which there is no return. It’s a starkly brutal word to apply to a living organism, let alone a huge number of them. Reading about the starling bodies spread out across the road, with no apparent explanation, was unsettling and bleak. This sensation—confusion, despair, horror, sadness—matched what I was feeling in relation to the coronavirus pandemic. I realised it was grief. I think about the idea of the wreck a lot in relation to global warming and the climate crisis.

Climate fiction often alludes to this precipice of permanent ruin; of the imminent wreck. Speculative fiction like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, imagines life in the aftermath of an environmental collapse that (whilst never fully specified) has permanently changed society, the environment, the characters, and the land itself. Prior to the pandemic, I had envisaged creating my own fictitious catastrophe as the context for my collection, but real life overshadowed any creative impetus I had left to do this. The climate crisis hadn’t gone away, but perhaps writing about the near end of the planet would have to be different in a post-coronavirus world. What was left, then, if speculating felt suddenly too painful, too unstable? Reality—or something close to it—felt like the only location for my writing. Reading about the dead birds on Anglesey gave voice to the sense of heavy grief that had now seeped into everyday life. Something had already happened; the story starts at the end. That quiet country lane, strewn with their bodies, became a proxy for other types of grief, personal and well as ecological. It also became the new starting point for my writing.

Short fiction has the capacity to evoke palpable, arresting moods. I’ve never been particularly proficient with the side of writing that requires the conception of elaborate plots or intricate casts of characters. What I enjoy about writing short fiction is that brevity forces you into a position of economy; the mood—the feeling—that you’re transmitting to the reader becomes the most important thing. The climate crisis evokes a range of feelings, many of them huge and intense. A single short story can’t convey the magnitude of the climate crisis, how could it? But perhaps a collection of stories can give a voice to the composite experience of despair, guilt, anger and grief that settle all around us with each passing year. In amongst this existential threat, though, we are living our lives. The oceans warm, species go extinct and birds, inexplicably, drop out of the sky. But people continue fall in and out of love, to take up new jobs, to move house, to begin and end and begin again. My story was about bringing this personal sense of ending—the loss of love, of a relationship—together with a wider sense of ecological endings. Mass animal deaths are visually and viscerally frightening, they make us think about our own mortality, but there is also the somewhat uncomfortable idea that witnessing death also reminds us that we are alive.

Aside from the setting and the point of departure, my story is a fiction. The characters are made-up, as is the mystery in my story around the bird deaths. Shortly after the real-life Anglesey wreck event, it was reported that the birds had likely been spooked by a predatory bird, or a sudden change in the weather. Another theory was that the birds had been dazzled by the winter sun reflecting on the wet road, causing the murmuration to swerve dramatically and crash into the tarmac. Like so many car crashes that happen at that time of year on country lanes, when the ground is glittering and icy, the sun is low in the sky. I wanted to write in the space between the discovery and the explanation, to locate the story in the inertia of not knowing. For this reason, I wanted the name of the setting to be obscured, but for the geographical details to convey the sense of place. I pieced together an imagined topography via Google Earth and reports from friends and relatives who live in the area.

One of my aunts has lived in Anglesey for most of her adult life. She lives in a remote community where she keeps bees and chickens. Through the confinement of lockdown, there was something powerful about reconnecting with her. I asked if she would check my use of the Welsh words used in the characters’ dialogue, asked her if my story’s setting felt real to her and her neighbours. I asked another writer and friend—stuck in a deserted student house in Bristol, unable to get home to Wales to see his family—for advice on the intonation of the dialogue. We talked a lot Welsh-accented conversational inflections, and about the use of the word Alright? It was through these interactions that the story took on its sense of place. I have the generosity of my Welsh friends and family to thank for that. There was something immeasurably comforting about this remote support of others—and this collective sharing and researching—during a time of acute uncertainty and pervasive grief.

At the time of writing, England is emerging from its third lockdown and those heavy, collective feelings are changing. They’re not leaving us necessarily—to me, the grief feels like it is now soaked into the cloth of daily life—but are perhaps jostling aside, making space for other feelings. Things are tentatively optimistic in this country at least, but they are also irreversibly changed. There has been a storm; now there’s wreckage to sift through.

Claire Carroll is a writer and PhD researcher based in Somerset, UK, who writes about climate anxiety and the intersection of nature, technology and desire. Her short fiction and poetry has been published by Short Fiction Journal, The White Review, perverse magazine, Reflex Fiction, Lunate and others.

Image by Jo Mazelis.