Anna Badkhen is the author of seven books, most recently Bright Unbearable Reality, which was longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award and for the 2023 Jan Michalski Prize for Literature. Her awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship, and the Joel R. Seldin Award from Psychologists for Social Responsibility for writing about civilians in war zones. Her essays have appeared in New York Review of Books, Granta, Harper’s, The Paris Review, Orion, and The New York Times. Anna was born in the Soviet Union and is a US citizen.
Studio Airport is Bram Broerse and Maurits Wouters. Together with a small team of creatives, they run a design practice based in Utrecht, the Netherlands. The studio has been recognized with international awards for projects such as Hart Island Project (New York), Amsterdam Art Council, and Greenpeace International.
Anna Badkhen traces markers left in the Earth from the near and distant past, unspooling the narratives that thread through the imprints we leave on the planet, and what they foretell for the future.
IN THE ACCOUNT of his travels in North America from 1527 until 1536, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca mentions the largest North American land mammal, Bison bison. The conquistador describes the animal we now often call “buffalo” as “cows”: “I have seen them thrice and have eaten their meat. They appear to me of the size of those in Spain. Their horns are small, like those of the Moorish cattle; their hair is very long, like fine wool and like a peajacket; some are brownish and others black, and to my taste they have better and more meat than those from here.”
In Cabeza de Vaca’s time, between thirty and sixty million buffalo lived in North America, mostly in the five hundred thousand square miles of grassland of the historic Great Plains. Three centuries later, cartographers on the Atlantic coast, whose greed yearned westward, declared everything beyond the frontier of the Mississippi the wilderness. The Wild West would be conquered by means of redrawn maps and disease and starvation and firearms and rape and banishment, an invasion that still seems never-ending. And so, in the second part of the nineteenth century, to starve Native Americans into concentration camps and make room for white settlers, the United States government spearheaded the extermination of most of the buffalo. By 1908, only 25 free-ranging buffalo remained in the United States, and 1,116 more in captivity, under the control of 45 private owners.
But the land still holds buffalo memory. Buffalo roll on the ground over and over to groom, to keep cool, to repel insects; this practice is sometimes called dust bathing, but most commonly, wallowing. Wallowing indents into the soil concave depressions that measure about ten feet in diameter. Animals will reuse one another’s wallows until they become too soggy and are abandoned. But even then, the wallows still maintain, for more than a hundred years, ecosystems that differ from the surrounding landscapes, trapping nutrients in soil that is better irrigated than the flats because of their concave shape—indeed, I have read of ancient wallows that never dry out—seeded with plants from other places that arrived on the hides of bison past.
Some years ago, the artist Rena Detrixhe sent me eight photos she had made in the Kansas prairie of four abandoned wallows. She photographed each of the wallows twice, in clear weather and in a kind of fog after a rain. Here, a neat disk of dense yellow blooms rises several inches above a field of white and green: a burnout polka dot where seeds that had immigrated on some animal’s hide centuries ago still germinate in the long-abandoned depression. Here, a brown, circular hollow in a field of green, the more sensitive plants from some other bygone pasture withered prematurely by the sun, which has not yet affected the more resistant local grasses. Here, an old wallow, mud crazed by a drought, and then the same wallow abrim with rainwater the color of sky, like the land’s silent rebuke to heaven.
Scholars estimate that there may have been five or more buffalo wallows per acre on the precolonial Great Plains: as many as 1.5 billion wallows. Many of them have been paved over or built upon or leveled for farmland. But hundreds of millions must still be there, each preserving in its bionetwork particular memories of migrations past. Hundreds of millions of buffalo wallows are narrating tales of yore in continent-scale, precolonial braille. If you read carefully this palimpsest of near-perfect circles, you can imagine the people it implies: the people who had been hunting buffalo for food and clothes and shelter and trade; and the people who came to genocide the hunters. Like a memorial: a remembering of something inimitable and precious, or of something inimitable and precious now broken; of the violence that broke it.
Studying up on the wallows, I came across a website that describes them as “ecological potholes.” I misread: ecological portholes.
IN THE SEVENTIES and eighties, my generation of Soviet girls played a summer game called sekretiki, little secrets. We would scoop out a thumb-sized patch of dirt in a park or a forest, line it with a bright candy wrapper (shiny Mylar foil from a chocolate was considered more valuable than plain paper, even if it still carried the scent of a strawberry caramel), and arrange upon it a handful of little treasures: a buttercup petal, a found sequin, a brightly colored bead. Then we would seal this miniature still life with a flat shard of window glass, which, in turn, we would blanket with leaves and pine needles—the more nondescript, the better. The idea was to forget where you had hidden your little shrine and then to come upon it later by happy accident: it was a way of sending a beautiful message in a bottle to your future self. The game fit my puerile aesthetic; my mother thought it kitsch and creepy and called the game mogilki: little graves. Perhaps she had a point. But the game was more fundamentally flawed: it was delusionary, because of course no six-year-old girl could honestly forget where she had hidden her precious and precise arrangement of treasures, just as we, while we heedlessly ravage the Earth, cannot honestly forget the messages we are sending to our future selves and to our future planet.
SPEAKING OF MESSAGES in bottles: have you heard that the earwax plugs of whales, which can measure more than a foot and a half and weigh as much as two pounds, store in their tree-ring-like layers memories of wars, whale hunts, rising water temperatures?
JUST AS ABANDONED buffalo wallows trap nutrients and moisture, so do archaeological features: once-upon-a-time fortification ditches, foundations long buried under layers of soil. When the rest of a field dries out, the soil above architectural boneyards continues to nourish crops. This was why, when a record heat wave scorched the farmlands of the United Kingdom and Ireland in 2018, greener crops traced markings across the British Isles, spelling in the withered fields the memoirs of human homesteads and ceremonial grounds and castles that modern people had not known existed. Some of these cropmarks revealed sites dating back to the Roman occupation; others, remnants of cursus monuments from the Neolithic more than five thousand years old. Ancient stories adumbrated: In one drought-browned field, a massive green circle. In another, two big circles connected by two parallel lines. In another still, three giant, concentric dotted hoops. Here, two rectangles side by side; here, seven adjacent rectangles stacked into two rows. In one Oxfordshire field, barely four hundred feet from FJ Payne & Son Ltd. (“Engine Reconditioning Services and General Machinists,” established in 1914), and dwarfing a four-building wood-and-stone estate to the southeast, a cursive of many circles strung together, and around them brackets and commas and something scratched out: a busy and urgent message, a run-on sentence, bisected by a farm hedge as if by the gutter in an open book.
Around the time my girlfriends and I buried sekretiki in the grass, our elementary school reading curriculum included a story about how Vladimir Lenin, during one of his stints in tsarist prison, was forbidden access to ink. To go around the prison guards, the wily revolutionary fashioned an inkwell from a heel of bread, filled it with milk, and wrote invisible letters that his friends outside would heat over a candle flame, browning the milk, to decipher. So, too, is climate change holding a candle to long-ago human stories, recovering ancient messages, mapping out our pasts.
By the way, the word “map” entered the English language in the sixteenth century via the French from the Medieval Latin mappa mundi, map of the world. Mappa—napkin, cloth, tablecloth, signal cloth, flag—is said to be of Semitic origin, perhaps related to the Mishnaic menaphah, a fluttering banner, a streaming cloth. But the oldest known maps were series of hollows, scars, notches—portholes—scooped out of bone, chinked into rock. Some of them appear to depict landmarks; some, the starry sky. What each map always shows is a relationship between elements of some space; what each map always implies is the observer, you. Each represents our effort to make sense of ourselves in a particular place—and thus, each charts our reach for meaning.
The word “map,” meaning “a drawing upon a plane surface representing a part or whole of the Earth’s surface or the heavens, with the various points drawn in proportion and in corresponding positions,” came into the English language in the 1520s, around the time Cabeza de Vaca came to North America, eventually mapping a narrative that helped pave the way for the Spanish crown to colonize deeper into the continent.
FOR ALMOST THIRTY years, paleoanthropologists have been deciphering the map of our becoming near the Ethiopian village of Herto Bouri. Three crania of some of the oldest-known direct ancestors of modern humans, Homo sapiens idaltu, known commonly as the Herto Man, were found in the chalky tuff around Herto Bouri, which sits close to the tip of a volcanic, fault-raised horst that geologists call the Bouri Peninsula, a tongue-shaped promontory that the turbulent tectonics of the Afar Triangle have thrust out of the Great Rift Valley to lap at the marshy Lake Caddabassa. The peninsula is a layer cake of pumice and sandstone and bentonitic tuff and silt clay; prehistoric peat carbonized into coal; deposits of mudstone and freshwater shells and petrified bones; outcrops of basalt, pink carbonate, gravel, and ash overlaid with cleavers, hand axes, and fossils, animal and human and prehuman.
One soft sunset in March of 2020, I stood on a small rise to the east of Herto Bouri. The tuff around me probably held the petrified remains of many more ancestors; I was possibly standing on some of them. The land swelled and dropped, stretched the skyline and drove it close, made out of distance an accordion, made my sense of perspective and scale as unreliable as my sense of time. There, I could see to the other side of the Afar Depression where volcanoes gleamed, abraded by time and blued by distance; there, the Earth curved much closer, dusted the sky where some children were driving home flocks of goats along the horizon—how far were they, or how long ago? I thought of Maimonides, who wrote in the twelfth century, “God is not a body, and therefore there can be no relation between Him and time. Similarly no relation is possible between Him and space.” But time and space were very much present in this biblical place. Five years of rain and livestock had remapped the site of the paleoanthropological dig that scholars had put on temporary hold, combed it with new gullies, shuffled the ossuary of prehumans and premammals and prebirds. So much research work, lost.
A paleoarchaeologist who had worked on the dig showed me a petrified fragment he said had been a bird bone once. All over the world since time immemorial, a common means of prophecy has been what the Greeks called ornithomanteia, literally “bird divination” (in Rome, this was called auspicium, or augury, looking at birds). Sometimes the diviner would watch birds’ flight patterns or listen to their calls or interpret the way they pecked grain or seeds. Sometimes, as in Etruria, a seer would dissect a bird and study its insides for portent—hence the wishbone. From a prehistoric bird bone, can I read the will of a prehistoric god? Can I make a retroactive wish that caroms off millennia? What is the message here?
The word “prophecy” came into the English language in the early thirteenth century, via Old French and Late Latin, from the Greek prophēteia, the gift of interpreting the will of gods, which literally translates as the telling of something in advance, foretelling. What is the term for a telling that took place long ago but that we are only reading hundreds, thousands, millions of years later, like the chronicle of buffalo wallows in North America, or the notation of Neolithic monuments in Oxfordshire?
In hindsight, everything’s a prophecy.
AFTER THE BRITISH writer and historian Paul M.M. Cooper tweeted aerial photographs of the crop marks in the British Isles, his audience tweeted in response their own readings of the images: “Ancient circulation under the skin.” “Fantastic how the past can become present.” “Coffee rings of the gods?”
ANY LITERATURE I could find about sekretiki dates my childhood game to the second half of the twentieth century. But we have been playing in the dirt for thousands of years. Mancala, a game of indentations often scooped out of rock or sand and filled (or “sown”) with pebbles (or “seeds”), is one of the world’s oldest known games and may have existed as early as 1500 BCE, though games scholars are at odds about the dating. “The presence of two rows of depressions is not particularly diagnostic as rows of holes may fulfill other functions,” writes the Dutch researcher Alex de Voogt, who believes mancala games may be centuries, but not millennia, old. And who knows? Ever do we reread and reinterpret the narratives of our footprints, literal and metaphorical, Morse code spelling out messages from the planet’s past and present; and each interpretation begets its own story, its own reach of the past into the future.
I’ve heard people say, “A person who asks questions will never be lost in the world.” But doesn’t that depend on the questions? Are we asking the right questions? Will our children be able to read the map we leave behind?
RENA’S LAST PHOTOGRAPH from the prairie is of herself crouching in a long-ago buffalo wallow. Her left arm is bent at the elbow, her cupped hand hovers, palm-down, like a sheltering. Her right hand reaches for something in the wallow, I cannot see what, the hand is hidden by grasses. Such attentiveness in her gesture, such care for the ground, grounding. I cannot know what she is feeling in this captured moment, but I know that she grew up in the Kansas prairie, and because of this, when I look at the photograph, I feel a kind of projected sympathetic tenderness—what I imagine to be Rena’s tenderness toward this place.
I have a buffalo photograph I took in the prairie myself, in 2017. It was on the border of Oklahoma and Kansas, where a herd of twenty-five hundred buffalo then lived on a fenced-in preserve that nature enthusiasts had sectioned off from the plains in the 1990s. (Today, some thirty thousand buffalo live on Tribal, private, and public land in the United States. All in all, North America has less than half a million bison, wild and ranched, occupying approximately 1 percent of the animal’s historic range.) The bison herd had grown from three hundred animals a rancher had donated from his private stock; they were brought here. In recent centuries, this part of the American Midwest has been the port of multiple arrivals, voluntary and forced: between 1830 and 1892, the US government rounded up tens of thousands of people belonging to at least fifty-four Tribal nations from their ancestral lands, mostly east of the Mississippi, and marched them to what they called Indian Territory; at least a seventh of the deportees perished during that period of ethnic cleansing. Later, white settlers came to the prairie, squeezed the exiles’ descendants off the land again.
My photograph: Out of focus, close up, is a dreadlock that a bison, maybe several bison, left on the guyline of a wooden utility pole. In the far distance, a small herd, mostly females and yearlings. Not in the photograph: the bottom five feet of the pole, smooth as a baby’s cheek and smelling of animal hide and breath, where buffalo have been rubbing against it for years. Maybe they were listening to the hum of the wires, the way I used to do as a child when my friends and I would find ourselves burying our sekretiki near the railroad tracks out in the country. Not in the photograph either: the yellow plastic insulation of the guyline that the animals have shucked off by rubbing against it and, beneath each guyline anchor, a fresh buffalo wallow.
This nature preserve is a projection, a sekretik, a museum of a North America that does not exist beyond its boundaries. Is it a dream, a figment of conservationists’ imagination, a map of Neverland? Or maybe it is a porthole, a prophecy of a North America still possible.
AMONG RENA’S BODY of work is a series of site-specific installations called Red Dirt Rug. For this piece, she hand-sifts hundreds of gallons of Oklahoma dirt and spreads it in an inch-thick layer across several hundred square feet of a gallery floor, stamping it as she goes with geometric patterns that she makes from found shoe soles. The installation takes weeks. Occasionally, a spider or a centipede or a mouse tracks across the dirt, spelling urgent stories of their passing into the ephemeral weft. “The refining and sifting of the soil and the imprinting of the pattern is a meditation on this past, a gesture of sensitivity, and the desire for understanding,” Rena explains in her introduction of the work. “Through this form, I attempt to question the tension between nature and human impact while suggesting the ubiquitousness and preciousness of the earth just below our feet.”
The messages we are pressing into the Earth now: will they turn out to be forecasts of woe, or narratives of possibilities, or both? In 2014, conservationists rewilded seventeen head of European bison, B. bonasus, in the Carpathian range in Romania. The European bison became extinct in the wild in 1927 and had been absent in Romania for nearly two centuries; now there are approximately one hundred animals roaming in the mountains and trailing in their wake new ecosystems. Birds gather bison fur to insulate their nests; frogs turn bison hoofprints into amphibian highways between ponds. The movement to restore bison to the wilderness is underway in the United States as well, especially on Tribal lands; proponents of the effort say the rewilding will contribute to prairie restoration, biodiversity, and resiliency. New maps, new traces, new windows into what’s ahead.
CABEZA DE VACA’S account, published in 1542, was originally called La relacion que dio Aluar Nuñez Cabeça de Vaca de lo acaescido enlas Indias, enla armada donde yua por gouernador Pãphilo de Narbaez, desde el año de veynte y siete hasta el año d’treynta y seys que boluio a Seuilla con tres de su compañia, but then, in an early marketing decision, renamed more intriguingly Naufragios, which means “shipwrecks.” It has been translated into the English under the following titles: Narrative of a Shipwreck by Castaway Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca; Chronicles of the Narváez Expedition; The Journey and Ordeal of Cabeza de Vaca: His Account of the Disastrous First European Exploration of the American Southwest; and Adventures in the Unknown Interiors of America. Each interpretation reflects a degree of a particular publisher’s predilection for its idea of the exotic, its dismissal of the colonized peoples and landscapes. Each is a map that traces the publisher’s desire. Naufragios is also a kind of map, essentially a real estate brochure of the American interior, addressed to “Holy, Imperial, Catholic Majesty,” Carlos V, whose reign significantly expanded Spanish occupation of the Americas and initiated the deportation and trafficking of enslaved people from Africa directly to the Western Hemisphere.
I often return to an alternative rendition of Cabeza de Vaca’s chronicles: Haniel Long’s Interlinear to Cabeza de Vaca: His Relation of the Journey from Florida to the Pacific, 1528–1536. Originally published in 1936, it was republished in 1944 as The Power Within Us, and in 1972 as The Marvellous Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca. Like the English translations of Naufragios, this book, thirty-four pages long, is, too, a wishful remapping. The poet reimagines the conquistador’s report to Carlos V as if Cabeza de Vaca were “unafraid of his King and his times,” and creates a document that he wishes Cabeza de Vaca had written instead. If Naufragios is a developer’s pamphlet, Interlinear is an anticolonial jeremiad, an indictment of the wickedness of exploitation and a near-theological plea for the generosity of compassion. It concludes: “The power of maintaining life in others, lives within each of us, and from each of us does it recede when unused. It is a concentrated power. If you are not acquainted with it, your Majesty can have no inkling of what it is like, what it portends, or the ways in which it slips from one.”
IN MID-NOVEMBER of 2021, Philadelphia stands etched in gold leaf, but nights are cold. One early morning I step off the running path onto park grass to stretch, and when I bend down, I see that each blade of grass is trimmed with hoarfrost, bezel-set into its diamond pavé. I return to the path; where I had just stood, the frost has melted and ovals of darker green trace my recent presence, my human body heat. A simile for the greenhouse effect of the Anthropocene, a metaphor for how generally fragile things are in the world? A reminder how impermanent our imprint can be? Or simply something to observe, a memory, a trace.
Step further into the changes enveloping us with Vol 4. Shifting Landscapes. The voices gathered here bear witness to the Earth’s changing face and offer ways to orient ourselves in this time of great loss, possibility, and transformation. Spanning 275 pages, this issue is our most photographic to date and includes a special practice insert.
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