I live near a holy lake filled with poison. Onondaga Lake, in Syracuse, was the founding-place of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, and is particularly sacred to the Onondaga Nation, who have been suing for land rights since at least 2005. (The case was rejected by the Supreme Court in 2013; they’ve since appealed to international bodies on the grounds of human rights violation.) This, however, is not what it’s famous for. Under white colonists’ stewardship, Onondaga became known as the most polluted lake in the United States.
Honeywell dumped chemicals in the lake. So did Exxon, and Sonoco; so did all the many processing and mining facilities set up to extract salt from the nearby creeks and salt marshes. There’s mercury, toluene, benzene, some mysterious unidentified poison that is “more powerful than DDT.” Swimming had to be outlawed; fishing had to be outlawed; there are places along the lakeshore where it’s been deemed unsafe to walk because the ground might give you cancer. The native fish species died out, so that only invasive species and algae were left. The lake started to stink, like a decaying body. Which it was; by the 1990s, when the U.S. government mandated environmental remediation, it had been deemed a “dead lake.” No remaining ecosystem, no life possible within or around it.
The land politics of all this are new to me, and I’m not sure how to talk about them, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I screw up. I’m certainly not trying to speak for the Onondaga Nation now, just recapping what I’ve read in the local papers and on their website.
But in legend, Onondaga Lake was home to the Tree of Peace, a gigantic white pine tree, symbolizing peace between the warring nations of the Haudenosaunee. It’s not there any more. I can’t find a record of its death, so maybe it was never a literal tree to begin with. Maybe it got sick, or struck by lightning, or maybe it was cut down in the process of building all those factories. At any rate, people — some of them white New Agers, it looks like — have tried to plant a new Tree of Peace on the lakeshore. There was a pine planted in 2003, and again in 2007, but it never took. The soil was too toxic. Both trees died.
The Tree of Peace kept dying. I may not know much, but I know a metaphor when I see one.
It was in the middle of my first upstate winter that I became mildly obsessed with The Terror — an AMC miniseries (now an anthology) adapted from Dan Simmons’ novel of the same name. The Terror centers on the historic Franklin expedition, a crew of Arctic explorers who went missing on the ice. “Went missing,” here, is something of a euphemism. They went missing from the point of view of the British navy that financed the expedition, but they were very much present to the Inuit, who saw a bunch of white guys wandering around upper Canada, loudly starving to death.
The fate of the expedition was kept mysterious for many years, however, because the testimony of the Inuit significantly conflicted with what the British wanted to believe. The wives and families at home wanted to hear about brave sailors nobly dying in the service of empire. The Inuit story was, well:
Outside the boat he saw a number of skulls. He forgot how many, but said there were more than four. He also saw bones from legs and arms that appeared to have been sawed off. Inside the boat was a box filled with bones…
He said the appearance of the bones led the Inuits to the opinion that the white men had been eating each other. What little flesh was still on the bones was very fresh ; one body had all the flesh on. The hair was light; it looked like a long body. He saw a number of wire snow-goggles, and alongside the body with flesh on it was a pair of gold spectacles…
One body — the one with flesh on — had a gold chain fastened to gold ear-rings, and a gold hunting-case watch with engine-turned engraving attached to the chain, and hanging down about the waist. He said when he pulled the chain it pulled the head up by the ears… His statement in reference to one of the deceased wearing a watch by a chain attached to his ears appears strange, but I give the statement as he made it. The chain may in some way have become attached to the ears, or, ridiculous as the story sounds, there may have been some eccentric person in the party who wore his watch in that way[.]
I think everyone knows that the scary corpse-puppet who could be manipulated by pulling the chains hooked into his ears did not just “wear his watch that way.” The answer was not that these men got lost in the unconquerable Arctic and froze, it was that a bunch of white people lost their minds and got into some full-on Event-Horizon-level carnage, not very far away from a functioning civilization, because they didn’t know how to find food.
The Terror tries to exhume and reconstruct that version of the story. I am not spoiling anything; you’re told, in the story’s first moments, that these ships will never make it back to England, and everyone is going to die. How their deaths came to seem like a metaphor, or a way of understanding my part of the world, is the part that requires more explanation.
Although — and this really may be a spoiler — there is a giant man-eating monster in this show, and I love those. So, maybe not that much explanation, after all.
The season in which I watched The Terror is significant; Syracuse is famous for its winters. They’re not Arctic, but they are up to six months long. This is marshland; it is wet, it is full of lakes and ponds and creeks, all constantly cycling through precipitation and evaporation. But unlike, say, a Florida swamp, all that water freezes. The snow up here started on the first day of November and it has not really stopped since. This winter was mild; it’s normal for a Syracuse winter to get below minus 20 degrees, with gales of wind that make it feel colder. Plumbing freezes; things shut down; streets become impassable. People moving to the city are advised on things like making sure you always have emergency caches of water, in case the pipes burst and the grocery stores shut on the same day.
This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. In New York City, where I lived for most of the past two decades, nature is only an inconvenience or a vacation. It’s muggy or it’s breezy, it’s raining or it’s not, you walk through a park for twenty minutes at lunch then return to a world made entirely of buildings and people for the rest of your day. The harshness of the conditions here means that nature is always present; the natural world is a tangible force, an entity, that pushes back on you and determines what will or will not be possible for you on any given day. Nature makes demands here that it doesn’t in the city, and thus, you are forced into conversation.
It’s how we’ve handled that conversation that is the problem. The other great contaminant in Syracuse, outside of the poisoned lake, is the lead. This is an old city, and in the 19th century, when most of its construction took place, lead paint was used on the exterior of nearly every building, and most of the interiors too. They used lead because it was weather-resistant; the only paint strong enough to withstand a Syracuse winter.
Except lead paint isn’t weather-resistant. Not really. Every winter, the snow and the ice and the gale-force winds chip and degrade the paint right off the houses, until the soil is full of lead dust, which gets kicked up and tracked in and inhaled, causing irreversible brain damage, mostly in children.
Our first house in Syracuse had active lead hazards in every room. A friend had examined it for us via Skype before we moved in — and caught the property managers telling us, on camera, that the house had no lead paint — but it wasn’t where you’d think. It was on the edges of the doors, which were poorly fitted and scraped against the doorjambs, so that every time you opened or shut them, ribbons of lead paint were carved off onto the floor. It was on the banisters, so that if you stuck a hand out to balance yourself on the narrow stairs, lead eroded into dust and stuck to your hand. It was peeling in strips off the outside trim, so that we were tracking it in every time we walked the dog. I know this, because I have a toddler, and I paid for a lead inspection, which proved the house was not just unsafe, but actively uninhabitable unless repairs were made.
The property manager refused to perform the necessary repairs. Lead isn’t in the housing code, in Syracuse, so brain damage doesn’t legally violate a tenant’s right to safe housing. Our landlord was only required to abate the lead if ordered to by the Department of Health, and the Department of Health had its lead-prevention funding gutted, so they were no longer able to order repairs unless we lived in a “high-risk” neighborhood or someone in the house had already been poisoned. The Skype call saved us: We had recorded them lying. We knew the right kind of lawyers. I had saved up money for my freelance taxes, which I spent on a new deposit somewhere else. We got out of the lease, and I even got back the money we’d paid. After we left, we saw the house had been put up for sale. The landlord had only acquired it in late August, but selling it was probably cheaper than performing all the repairs that would need to be done.
But if we had even a little less money, if we had even a little less luck, my one-year-old daughter would have brain damage by now. There would be nothing I could do. In 2017, over ten percent of the toddlers in Syracuse had lead poisoning — most of them poor children, many of them refugees, whose crooked landlords rent out houses with the poison peeling right off the walls. Not everyone can just pick up and move when their house proves to be uninhabitable.
All because someone wanted weather-resistant paint. Because white people colonized one of the snowiest regions in the United States, and they wanted paint that was stronger than the winter, and nothing is stronger than the winter out here. The city unfolds this way, in the conversation between the Winter and the attempt to contain the winter, the land and the damage done to the land to make it less imposing. The black bears and grey wolves hunted to extinction, and the deer population ballooning out of control because there’s nothing to eat them; the cleared wetland, and the rattlesnakes slithering through the suburbs; the snowstorm-proof trim on the door and the poisoned child.
“This is a very Syracusan show,” my husband said, somewhere in the middle of The Terror, and he wasn’t wrong. It’s about snow and poison and winters that don’t end. It’s about a world where Nature is always present, not as a gentle, cuddly Gaia figure, but as white, ice-coated behemoth trying to rip your throat out. It’s about the arrogance of men who see the natural world as merely territory for an empire, and what happens when that natural world drags them — bloodily, with her teeth — into conversation.
The men of the Franklin expedition were on the bleeding edge of their culture’s technology. They had access to marvelous innovations that were meant to help them survive the Arctic cold. They had diving suits; engine-powered ships; an almost inexhaustible supply of canned food. Yes, food: They had whole holds full of it, ships stocked with thousands of meals, all of it sealed and kept imperishable thanks to the cutting-edge technology of sealed lead cans.
Perhaps now you can see why I latched on. These men took years’ worth of food out onto the ice, and all of it was poison. There was lead in every meal they ate — marvelous, life-giving lead! Lead, the peak of technology! Lead: Winter’s nemesis! — and it seeped into their bones and their hair and their brains, eating away their capacity for anger management or impulse control, giving them delusions and hallucinations, deducting IQ points with every bite, until they were a roving Event-Horizon torture carnival, keeping each other’s sawed-off arms in baskets like a bucket of KFC.
The cast of The Terror is almost exclusively white and male. (Though it is, at least, reflective about whiteness and masculinity; there is a character who would likely be considered biracial, at least by the standards of his time, who is passing for white, and a bit of homophobia directed toward one gay character almost single-handedly tanks the expedition.) There’s only one major female character, a kidnapped Inuit woman that the men name “Lady Silence,” and as the nickname suggests, she hardly speaks. Yet Lady Silence quickly becomes the most important figure on screen, because she’s the witness to these men. She’s living proof that they are not in uncharted territory, as they claim, and their problem is not that the tundra is unlivable; it’s that these specific men don’t know how to live there.
Lady Silence, for instance, knows enough to stay clear of the monster. That monster — the Tuunbaq — is the main attraction here. It is also, somewhat problematically, portrayed as a mystic ally to the Inuit; Lady Silence, who is a shaman, can communicate with and pacify it.
Or, at least, this is how the relationship looks to a bunch of scared, actively psychotic white men. I don’t relish the magical-Native-American aspects of Lady Silence’s plotline, but to the viewers at home, the Tuunbaq also just looks like a large, hungry polar bear. (And like a famous painting of the Franklin expedition.) These men could easily be spinning a veil of mystique around a natural predator that is outside their experience, just as earlier explorers saw rhinoceri and came home with stories about unicorns. In other moments, the Tuunbaq feels like a guilt-induced collective hallucination, a “supernatural” projection of the men’s very human vices. The Tuunbaq eats people; the sailors eat people; it’s all a bit pot-calling-the-kettle-Tuunbaq, if you stop to think.
It may not matter whether the Tuunbaq is a spirit or an animal or a metaphor, because on some level, it’s all of those things. The Tuunbaq is the land. The Tuunbaq is Winter, the cold that can kill you without blinking, the embodied ferocity of the Arctic. It leaves Lady Silence alone because she leaves it alone; she knows how to live with that kind of winter, she can hunt seals and build a shelter and keep herself warm without eating any of her coworkers’ legs off. It’s the white guys — violent, arrogant, out for conquest, loudly scaring off all the game animals then complaining there’s no food, dragging tons of toxic heavy metals through the landscape — who get a faceful of Tuunbaq whenever they overstep their bounds. Frequently, it must be said, while the Tuunbaq is getting its face full of them.
It is not that the land contains monsters. Living on the land turns these men into monsters. They think they are stronger than the winter, and the winter rises up — with ice-encrusted coat and blood dripping from its fangs — to prove them wrong. It may be a stretch to call The Terror an ecological horror story, but its environmental resonance haunted me. Through their sheer will to dominate the natural world, these men are poisoning themselves, and poisoning everything around them. The horror is not that this particular group will fail in their mission to conquer the Arctic; the horror is that, one day, men just like them will succeed. Ask Onondaga Lake.
The cleanup of the lake has been, by most measures, a success. Swimming is now permitted in some spots, though fishing isn’t. There’s no smell. Blue herons have returned to the lake, which ecologists say is a particularly promising development; there are now enough edible fish in the lake to support a population of predators. Predators are a good sign. They mean the food chain is working. Bald eagles winter in the trees near the shoreline, and if you are careful, you can get close enough to see the nests.
But the bald eagles are now enough of a tourist attraction that people want to build a path through their habitat, which may well cause them to leave it. The cleanup is being done by the same corporations that initially poisoned the lake, mostly Honeywell, which may look like accountability, but also means that the people “fixing” the lake have a track record of neglecting its best interests, and there are persistent accusations that they’re doing it on the cheap. It wouldn’t be surprising. Some men in this town will poison babies rather than pay to replace a door.
The latest fight is over Honeywell’s plan to deal with the poison in the lake bed. Onondaga Nation has introduced an ambitious rewilding plan, which would require actually dredging out the contaminated soil and replacing it. The much cheaper Honeywell solution is to introduce “caps” — pieces of concrete and other artificial materials that go over the poisoned soil, blocking it off from the water. Caps are not permanent. Caps erode; they break and leak. Three caps have broken already, over the course of the clean-up, bringing the mercury and the -enes flooding right back into the water supply. This is a Band-Aid, not a cure, according to Onondaga Nation; this generation’s kids and grandkids will have to keep un-poisoning the lake, over and over, every time a cap fails.
That’s if we’ve left them a livable planet. Onondaga Lake is everywhere. The ice caps are melting; the sea is acidifying; according to one newspaper factoid I can’t shake, my daughter may live to see the day the ocean loses its last fish. The smell will be something we can’t imagine. Polar bears are being driven out of their natural habitat, so that there is a town in Russia full of hungry, confused Tuunbaqs. The corporations that did this are the only ones with the money to fix it, and they really, really don’t want to pay.
All through the long winter, everything my husband and I had a problem with was The Terror. If the baby skipped her nap and had a meltdown in the evening, we’d say she was doing a Terror, and if we had an argument, we’d say stop Terror-ing me, and if the car took too long to warm up, or we were snowed in on a weekend, or the temperature dropped below 0 degrees, we’d say we got Terror’d. It helped to imagine ourselves that way; to see ourselves as crewmen on a small vessel, far away from home in a cold country, trying to get through the winter without freezing. I am an outsider, a colonizer; the guy in the boat, not the people on the ice. I am the person who doesn’t know how to live here, and I may make things worse by trying.
But I know that we are not innocent people in a hostile environment. We are people being hostile to the innocent environment. There is no un-poisoning the lake; the toxins will always lurk just under the soil, like a trauma, or an old memory, ready to pour out when the seal is broken. The white men in those boats were ravenous monsters, man-eaters, gulping down everything in their path. They — we — still are.
The Terror is available to rent on Amazon Prime.
We’ve switched around the order this month — I wanted to talk about this show before spring arrived — but we’ll cover a reader pick in our next installment. We have only three more reader-nominated movies to cover, so to submit another one, reply to this e-mail or Tweet at me.