As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve been working on a new series of novels: The Southern Reach series. The first one, already completed, is entitled Annihilation and it’ll be sent around soon to publishers. Here’s a very rough draft description of the book: “Area X: mysterious, remote, and concealed by the government as an environmental disaster zone for more than 30 years. But strange forces are gathering in this pristine wilderness protected by an invisible, deadly border. The secret agency known as the Southern Reach has sent in eleven expeditions to discover the truth about Area X. Now, the twelfth will attempt to succeed where all others have failed…This is the story of that twelfth expedition, narrated by the biologist attached to the mission: a reticent, misanthropic woman who brings her secrets to Area X.”
Short excerpt below, which is somewhat atypical of the whole–don’t want to give away any spoilers! A flashback to her childhood.
My lodestone, the place I always thought of when people asked me why I became a biologist was the overgrown swimming pool in the backyard of the rented house where I grew up. My mother was an artist who achieved some success but was too fond of alcohol and always struggled to find new clients, while my dad the hot-headed unemployed accountant specialized in schemes to get rich quick that usually brought in nothing; neither of them seemed to possess the ability to focus on one thing for any length of time. They did not have the will or inclination to clean the kidney-shaped pool, even though it was fairly small.
Soon after we moved in, the grass around its edges grew long. Sedge weeds and other towering plants became prevalent. The short bushes lining the fence around the pool lunged up to obscure the chain link. Moss grew up in the cracks in the tile path that circled it. The water level slowly rose, fed by the rain, and the surface became more and more brackish with algae. Dragonflies continually scouted the area. Bullfrogs moved in, the wriggling malformed dots of their tadpoles always present. Water gliders and aquatic beetles began to make the water their own. Rather than get rid of my freshwater aquarium, as my parents wanted, I dumped the fish into the pool, and some survived the shock of that. Local birds, like herons and egrets, began to appear by the pool, drawn by the frogs and fish and insects. By some miracle, too, small turtles began to live in the pool, although I had no idea how they had gotten there.
Within months of our arrival, the pool had become a functioning ecosystem. I would slowly enter through the creaking wooden gate and observe it all from a rusty lawn chair I had set up in a far corner. Inside the house, my parents might be arguing about money or each other, and I might even be able to hear, faintly, their shouting as the war of attrition I would eventually call the ten-year divorce ground on, but I could easily lose myself in the micro-world of the pool.
Inevitably, my focus netted from my creative parents—who thought both too much and too little—useless lectures of worry over my chronic introversion. I didn’t have enough (or any) friends, they reminded me. But when I told them that several times, like a reluctant ant lion, I had had to hide from bullies in the gravel pits that lay amid the abandoned fields beyond the school, they had no answers. Nor when one day for “no reason” I punched a fellow student in the face when she said hello to me in the lunch line.
So we proceeded, locked into our separate imperatives: my parents’ disintegration, which they only pretended not to enjoy the drama of, and my pretending to be a biologist. I kept notes in several journals. I knew each individual frog from the next, Old Flopper so much different from Ugly Leaper, and during which month I could expect the grass to teem with hopping juveniles. I knew which species of heron came back year-round and which were migrants. The beetles and dragonflies were harder to identify, harder to intuit their lifecycles, but I still diligently tried to understand them. In all of this, I eschewed books on ecology or biology. I wanted to discover information on my own first.
As far as I was concerned—an only child, and an expert in the uses of solitude—my observations of this miniature paradise could have continued forever. I even jury-rigged a water-proof light to a waterproof camera, and planned to submerge the contraption beneath the dark surface, to snap pictures using a long wire attached to the camera button. I have no idea if it would have worked, because suddenly I didn’t have the luxury of time. Our luck ran out, and we couldn’t afford the rent any more. We moved out, to a tiny apartment, stuffed full of my mother’s artwork, which all resembled wallpaper. One of the great traumas of my life was worrying about the pool. Would the new owners see the beauty and the importance of leaving it as-is, or would they raze it all down, perform an atrocity in honor of the pool’s real function?
I never found out—I couldn’t bear to go back, even if I also could never forget the richness of that simple overgrown swimming pool. All I could do is look forward, apply what I had learned from watching the denizens of the pool. And I never did look back, for better or worse. If funding for a project ran out, or the area we studied was suddenly bought for development, I never returned. There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to re-live, certain kinds of connections that are so deep that when broken you feel the snap of the link inside you.
As we descended into the tower, I felt again, for the first time in a long time, the flush of discovery I had first experienced as a child.