Ground Truthing by Holly Schofield

Remote Sensing: the acquisition of information without making physical contact with the object. In oceanic studies, it can help monitor shoreline changes, measure ocean temperature, and assess environmental hazards, although it has limited resolution in many cases.

Sandra didn’t expect me for another hour. I eased open our apartment door, anticipation superseding dread. I laid my kit bag on the mat, next to a tangle of her boots.

Her step in the hall, laundry tumbling from her hands, a sharp noise in her throat, then, “Priya!”

I closed the distance between us and wrapped my dive-hardened arms around her.

Six months ago, when the crowdfunded barrier reef survey project had an unexpected opening, I had half an hour to decide. I spent ten minutes of it with my finger hovering over Sandra’s icon on my phone. The reason for the open position—the accidental drowning of a volunteer—was not something Sandra would want to hear. Finally, I’d foisted my undergrad classes on two post-docs and simply left my aquariums. I hadn’t texted Sandra until the plane lifted off.

I breathed in the odors of home—tomato sauce, wet raincoats, and Sandra’s citrus shampoo—and curled my fingers into her shirt.

Before the plane had landed in French Polynesia, I’d admitted my mistake. Ten years of marriage had given us a certain stability in a turbid world but this disruption held hurricane force. When she’d received my text, she’d freaked, citing media examples of the underwater project’s minimal safety protocols and low budget equipment. Her fears had contaminated our short emails and occasional Skyping.

Perhaps, now, giving her more information on the work I was doing could heal the wounds. On the fifteen-hour flight home, I’d scribbled down scientific definitions to share with her.

She tugged on my travel-frizzed braids, drawing my face down to hers. “So, home for good or a stop on your migration route?” she said, trying hard for humor.

I kissed her in reply, avoiding the precision of an answer. When I’d left Bora-Bora yesterday, the project coordinator had pleaded with me to re-up another six months.

Sandra returned my kiss, squinting, trying to read my eyes.

•••

Inshore Marine Area: Ten percent of the distance between the outer boundary of a barrier reef and mean low water on the mainland at the same latitude. An arbitrary boundary created for the purpose of analysis.

The next day still had uneasy undercurrents, despite my numerous apologies. I’d expected my arrival would disrupt Sandra’s adaptations to my absence: pulling double-shifts at her bookstore and volunteering at the food bank. I hadn’t expected her frustrated look whenever I tried to explain why I’d spent twenty-five weeks crammed into a single-person submarine.

I threw myself down on the couch. After nights in a gritty beach tent, our old IKEA sectional felt soft as a pine forest floor. Sandra sat cross-legged in the recliner opposite, separated by a shaft of sunlight and six months of resentment.

“Sandra, sweetie, if we don’t quantify the data now, the reefs may be irreparable later, don’t you see?”

She slapped her hands on the coffee-stained arms of her chair. “Don’t you see? Other people can fix the environment—other people have fixed it.” She jerked her chin at the window, at the completely re-greened Sudbury landscape, currently the darling of the Ontario environmentalism media.

I ignored her anger. “Yup, we do succeed, once in a while. That doesn’t mean we’re winning the climate change war.” And it was a war, with skirmishes and retreats. And casualties on both sides.

She continued, biting off each word. “Other people would happily take your place in that underwater death trap. And, meanwhile, your research here is suffering. You’re trashing your career over benthic classifications.”

Her words rolled over me like an ocean swell, tumbling my thoughts. Why couldn’t she see the barrier she was placing between us? And, when had she learned the word benthic?

I struggled for breath in her verbal torrent. “Not many people have a Ph.D. in geospatial analysis and can scuba dive,” I sounded so defensive I turned over and hid my face in the couch.

“Besides, I should have told you before, my lab research hit a dead end. Literally. The fish in the agricultural run-off samples—they all died, even in the most dilute trials. My study has to start completely over.” I felt more exhausted than I had after a twelve-hour shift running underwater line transects.

“Well, that’s the nature of research. And of our marriage, it seems.” Her words flashed like distant heat lightning. “I’m tired, Priya, wrung dry.”

“Sweetie, I have to contribute what I’m able, I need to.” My eyelashes scraped couch fabric.

Her silence lapped at the shores of the room.

•••

Adaptive Conservation Management: a structured process of decision making via system monitoring. Examples include habitat improvement and reintroduction of species.

At sunrise, Sandra’s coughing woke me up. The bedsheet tightened around her shoulders as she hunched away from me. “I don’t want to infect the customers,” she said thickly. “Just open for me. I’ve called Margie and she’ll take over at noon. I just want to sleep. Please, Priya?”

Sandra’s bookstore had a different morphology. The front display perched on crooked shelves, atop an aquamarine tablecloth we’d gotten as a wedding gift and never used. I straightened the cloth, surprised to see the books were recent environmental non-fiction.

I set my purse on the shelf beneath the cash register, nudging aside A Glossary of Climate Change Terminology. Multiple corners were folded over in Sandra’s inimitable style. I flipped past pages of scribbled margin notes, liberally stained with a yellow highlighter.

The morning sped by. Customers came in spurts of two and three. In between ringing up sales, I browsed Sandra’s new inventory. I perused several books of interest, building up a stack by the register.

“You’re Priya? Sandra’s told me all about you!” The tattooed girl came around the counter. “I’m Margie. Great to meet you. Although I didn’t expect…” her voice trailed off.

I stood up, clutching my selection, Deepening your Relationship in a Shallow World. “Thanks for coming. I’m heading home straight away. Sandra was pretty sick when I left.”

“Really? Her text this morning said she wanted the day off to spend with you. Which is confusing, since you’re here…”

A sour taste in my throat. Had Sandra lied about her flu? Payback? Or—I paused so long Margie stared—maybe, Sandra wanted me to reconnect with this environment. Amid the familiar scent of musty paper, I’d recalled the priority that I’d forgotten: us.

On my way out, I passed the off-kilter display and made a mental note to bring a staple gun next time I came.

•••

Ground Truthing: a process in which physical in-person survey results are compared to a satellite image in order to verify the contents of the image.

I thrust a large spoonful of ice cream in my mouth, letting the caramel melt on my tongue. The breeze flowing in through the living room window was equally cool, nothing like the baking heat of the tropics. I handed the container to Sandra, and she took an even bigger spoonful.

“You do know I know that you wouldn’t be you without your passion for the environment,” she said, carefully enunciating each word around her spoon.

I chuckled. “I’m not sure I can parse that.” I scooted closer on the couch. “But I’ve learned that everything needs monitoring, including the entity called ‘us’.” My finger wiped a drop of golden ice cream from her collar.

She stroked my hand. “We knew our relationship would have dieback.” She laughed softly at her words—how I’d missed that sound. “And algal blooms.”

I licked my finger. “And invasive species. You know, like brain weasels. Telling us worst case scenarios.”

“And nasty stomach butterflies—no, wasps—that sting whenever I think of you submerged below the ocean.” Her blue eyes held mine. “Those wasps used to hurt. A lot. So I struck back, like a wounded animal.” She sucked on her lip. “But I’ve adapted. I hope.”

I squeezed my eyes shut, the better to see. My rash decision to take the survey position had caused her such pain. I hoped I could still pull us back from the brink. I could assist the reef workers from here, doing necessary, tedious analysis. My lab research would eventually pay off, if I would quit being so short-sighted.

“Hey, remember that T-shirt I had? The blue one with the dolphin and the cool saying?”

She nodded against my shoulder. “You wore it to shreds. I can still picture the dolphin’s speech bubble.”

I opened my eyes. “I promise to never forget its message again.”

We clicked spoons together and chanted over and over in perfect synch, “The price of a balanced ecosystem is constant vigilance,” as the words drifted away on the breeze.

 

•••

 

BIO: Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed’s “Women Destroy Science Fiction”, AE, Unlikely Story, Tesseracts, and many other publications throughout the world. For more of her work, see hollyschofield.wordpress.com.

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