Illustration by Justin Perkins

A Fire Threaded Through It: The Disappearance of the Florida Panther

by Andrew Hemmert

In three days I’m flying back to Florida for Thanksgiving. I won’t be going home for Christmas. That’s retail for you. If your family’s far, you pick one holiday. Otherwise you’re scheduled for the long haul.

I live in a collage of disappearances. We all do. While I’m writing this, California is dealing with its worst wildfire in recorded history. The last two years have been particularly bad for fires. As it so turns out, dry vegetation and higher average temperatures make for a vanishing west.

I noticed recently that there’s a lot of fire in my new manuscript. Only lately have those fires been directly tied to what’s being broadcast from news stations in California, but it’s been there all along I think, burning from within the book like a tree struck by lightning.

What’s happening in California has nothing to do with me, and yet it’s given to me in real time. I’m walking around with the world’s disasters in my pocket. I wake up, I see the world burning. I go to work and the world is burning. I go to bed. Fire doesn’t sleep.

Florida’s dealing with its own disasters, politically and otherwise. Watching the midterm election results come in was bittersweet for me. We went solidly blue in Michigan, which was refreshing. But while the good news was coming in for Lansing, I was still watching the Gillum/DeSantis race, doing my best to believe my home state wouldn’t give the governorship to another dog-whistling conservative. I had no reason to believe it couldn’t happen, but you know how hope works.

Another thing I’ve been watching in Florida. Red tide has plagued the state’s coastline for months now: water that fish can’t breathe in, water that irritates the skin and causes respiratory issues. It’s made worse by the leaching of fertilizers into waterways. People have been reporting less dead fish on beaches, I read in an article recently. Something about the nearshore reefs being nearly dead themselves, nothing out there to wash in.

Show me a Floridian Republican politician who puts the health of the world above corporate interests, seriously. Tell them to talk to Rick Scott. Tell them to talk to Marco Rubio. Tell them to clear out their voice mailboxes so I don’t have to send faxes any more.

At the time that I wrote “On The Disappearance Of The Florida Panther,” there were apparently about two hundred Florida panthers left. That’s it. We’ve shrunk their forests, cut across their range with interstates. Cars are their only natural predators.

If I can write a poem without putting a road in it, I consider it an achievement. Problem is, my first real engagement with a world larger than myself was driving. I first saw Florida, on my own terms, through a windshield. I fell in love with Florida through glass, at seventy-five miles per hour.

If self-driving cars fail as a product, as a movement, I think it’ll be mostly the fault of American stubbornness. Driving might be the most American thing there is. It’s the illusion of freedom, gotten at the cost of someone else’s ingenuity and labor, and ultimately a way of living that can’t be sustained. You can’t just drive wherever you want. Cars aren’t designed to carry you away from the road.

It’s a privilege to drive. It’s privileged to have driven. It’s one of my favorite things in the world, and it’s killing everything.

So we live at the intersection of failing infrastructures, frail ecosystems, and a collective denial of our interdependence. Of course there’s fire threaded through it.

It’s four in the morning, and maybe I’ll get back to sleep once I finish writing this, and maybe I’ll just lie in bed in the dark looking at news articles on my phone with the screen set to the dimmest light setting, which is still too bright.

We live in a collage of disappearances. Try to be kind to yourself, try to take time away from the collage. But fire doesn’t sleep. I have to catalogue the things that I’ll miss. If I start tomorrow it’ll be too late.

Andrew Hemmert

Andrew Hemmert is a sixth-generation Floridian living in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bat City Review, The Greensboro Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, and Washington Square Review. His poem "Broken Season" won the 2018 River Styx International Poetry Contest. He earned his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and currently serves as an assistant editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal.

Andrew Hemmert contributed to the North American Review Winter issue, Volume 304.1.

Illustration by: Justin Perkins. Justin graduated from College for Creative Studies. A freelance illustrator and designer, he teaches art in Detroit. Justin’s first illustration for the North American Review appeared in issue 298.4.