The Forest Hears and the Seagrass Sees
Part 1: Apples and Oranges
For several years I treated a man who had worked as a medic in Vietnam. Forty years after the war, he could still hear the screams of wounded soldiers in his memory. They would all call out for their mothers, he told me. Every single one of them would call out for their mother when they knew they were going to die. He was haunted by the helplessness he felt in those moments. Sometimes he would reassure them that he would call their mothers when he got home. And when he got home, in what could be war’s greatest act of courage, he actually did.
In the summer of 2020 I sat with my weird now-ex-husband behind a two-way mirror. We watched as our then-7-year-old son sat at a table across from a neuropsychologist, feet dangling, answering uestions he had no idea why he was being asked. One section asked about similarities between words.
Apples and oranges, both categorized as fruit. He nailed that one.
Brother and sister: They’re both humans. He does not speak of family.
He received a diagnosis. When he trips and falls and cries out in pain, and I run over to him to comfort him and he screams at me to go away, in what could be motherhood’s greatest act of courage, I actually do.
Not long ago I evaluated a new client, a 26-year-old man who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 4. Over the years, he said he’s learned to compensate for his lack of intuition around social skills. I learned that if you are polite, people won’t hate you. He is in a loving and supportive relationship with a medical student at Wayne. I made the decision early on that when he said he loved me, I would take that at face value. That was the best choice I could have made. He’s the most amazing person I’ve ever met. And he loves me. He actually does.
I asked about his upbringing. He was raised by married parents, a Navy brat. As a kid, I had these intense interests. It was like an inner world in my head, an inner existence. I knew my mom loved me, but I knew she couldn’t understand my inner world. I had to blink away some tears. Lost focus in the interview, asked a question I’d already asked, apologized. My 30-second-space-out was from a sudden rush of two conflicting emotions, sadness and gratitude. Sadness for his mother who couldn’t understand. Sadness for him, that he knew so early that his mother was wholly separate from his inner existence. Sadness for me, whose love for her own strange rude son feels like a monsoon of ink that, if given the task to write down what the fuck is going through that boy’s mind sometimes, could not get the paper wet.
And. Grateful he always knew she loved him. Grateful he learned how to be polite.
Grateful he found a medical student who has gotten inside and seen him. Grateful he has learned how to give and receive love.
(The kids are alright.) (They actually are.)
I realize now that maybe my son on the spectrum was more right than I would have been when he said a brother and sister are both humans. Brother, sister, nonbinary sibling–whosoever’s name echoes out in Vietnam — whether you cry out for your mother, or scream at the medic to get the fuck away: the medic hears. And even if he’s not around and you’re alone in a forest and a tree falls on your face: the forest hears.
There’s an intricate web that connects us all, an infinite source from which we can draw whatever will sustain us: an apple, an orange, a warm caress or just some space. Though there is no empty space in all the universe! Nature knows what it abhors, and I will nurture whatever creature calls for me, in war or in peace. Peace and carrots, falling trees in empty forests, under Orion under Taurus: you are all my apples, all my oranges.
Part 2: On the Spectrum
I have a son on the autism spectrum whose third grade class picture could be titled “Boy’s Mouth in Defiantly Neutral Position.” I could visualize the scene:
Photographer commands him to smile.
He says ‘no.’
Sometimes his behavior makes more sense than mine does.
Yesterday, we all took a (free) trip to the Detroit Science Center, to ring in Earth Day 2023. I had excelled in the natural sciences as a student; that was when I had to love science so that I could ace my way to a degree that would allow me to help people in the way I’d decided I wanted to help them. (These days, I choose to love science when it helps me think in poetry.) In any case, on the ground floor, I found myself transfixed on a diagram showing the electromagnetic spectrum. I tried to explain how cool it was to one of my kids, though I’m not sure I conveyed the message well. Even with some deliberation I’m not sure I can, but here goes:
Look at all those waves, how they progress from super-wide to super-narrow. That’s the entirety of our sensory experience as human beings, right up there! The widest ones can be heard over a radio. Then, there are waves that can cook frozen food, and waves we can hear with our ears. Then, there’s a tiny little rainbow. And then, as the waves get more and more narrow, we can see inside the human body. We can kill cancer cells. But what I want you to notice is how small that little rainbow is compared to the whole spectrum of waves. Within that tiny window is all the human eye can perceive. Look how many waves there are that are wider, and how many that are more narrow. Look at how much we cannot see.
And yet. We humans have the audacity to assume the world is ours to take. A force called “hierarchy” says: Hey, let’s find the largest possible gap in the tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that human beings can perceive. That there, between white and black, is your Roy G. Biv. Let’s see if we can make that gap into a loophole.
And then a force called “pride” says: The waves you can see with your eyes are such a tiny fraction of the waves that are, but go on. Look closer, at the space between black and white. What you can see in those colors, if you look closely enough, are the linked arms of all of those willing to resist the force of the oppressor. Linked arms resisting, saying “Carry each other. Carry each other.” All we can perceive is light, and light is made up of linked arms.
I won’t smile because a man tells me to smile. I’ll smile because of what I can see, and what I can’t.
Part 3: Faygo Eels
This morning, my son Adam let me gaze into his doe eyes for a moment. “Dark brown eyes,” I murmured, as I often do in this context; it’s been almost 10 years since I first looked into them, but his eyes continue to surprise me. They’re much darker than his father’s and his brother’s brown eyes; Adam’s are almost black and must have been a recessive gene sent down by my Armenian grandmother. Inquisitive as always, he asked my partner Jim and me, “What’s the rarest eye color?”
Jim and I both have eyes that could be considered either hazel or green. I’d always learned this was the rarest eye color, and been low-key proud of that claim to fame (Adam gets to be left-handed and has nothing to complain about). “Maybe it’s amber,” Adam guessed, a shade I’d never even heard used, but Jim had already Googled the matter. We went off on a brief detour to discuss heterochromia (demonstrated by many husky dogs, and an actress from my kids’ favorite YouTube channel), Horner’s syndrome (I’d only remembered two features of the symptom triad, sadly), and a Google image rabbit hole of albinos with bright red eyes.
I thought of the eyes on the adorable “seagrass eels” we’d all marveled at the day before, during our family outing to the first public aquarium ever erected on Turtle Island, which happens to be in our city. They’re the size of earthworms, meant to mimic seagrass; they keep popping up out of the sand, dancing around, lengthening and shortening, swaying in the wind. Hey there! they seem to greet visitors. Don’t mind us, we’re just some seagrass. Seagrassin’ around like the seagrass we are.
I stared at them, oddly transfixed by their cuteness. What if earthworms had eyes — would I find them cuter and less gross? I wondered. For that matter, what if real blades of seagrass had eyes? Maybe they do, I thought, and we just can’t see them. And I hear the lesson I received in my soul at our last family outing, to the Detroit Science Center, gazing at the electromagnetic spectrum: how small that little rainbow is, what the human eye can perceive. Look how many waves there are that are wider, and how many that are more narrow. Look at how much we cannot see. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch that blades of grass might have eyes, and leaves might have eyes, and every living being is looking right back at us. If we could look into the eyes of every organism around us, how would that affect how we experience this big spinning rock we live on? Would we all stop lying to it? Be kinder to it?
Either way, I tell my child, all three of my children, every living thing we can and cannot see. The rarest eye color is you.
As we drove home from the aquarium, we passed a mural intended to pay homage to Detroit cuisine: coney dogs, Vernors, Better Maid chips, a can of Faygo. As a kid, my fridge had Faygo pop in it – not because we were hipsters paying homage to Detroit, but because it was cheaper than Coke or Pepsi products. But you won’t ever see the hipsters selling “Faygo Cola” or “Faygo Lemon-Lime” for nostalgic value, because people would just drink it and think to themselves, This tastes like [Coke / Sprite], only it’s not as good. The problem with these Faygo flavors is that they are off-brand pops trying unsuccessfully to be something they’re not. Faygo Rock & Rye, on the other hand — that’s a flavor unto itself. It is indescribable and delicious.
I pay my own silent homage to Detroit, to the seagrass eels popping their heads up to watch me drive away with my family. What’s so great about seagrass, anyway? I ask the Rock-and-Rye eels. Don’t try to be something you’re not.
And to all living things, I will look into all of your eyes and see the true miracle, so that I may remind you of it: the rarest eye color is you.
Lindsay-Rose Dunstan, MD (she/her/hers) is a queer psychiatrist, prison/police abolitionist, and founder of Uncaged Minds, a mental health and wellness resource for low-resourced Detroiters with neurodivergent conditions and marginalized identities. Her work has been published in leftist and mental health journals, poetry anthologies, and Slate Magazine. She lives in Detroit.