On The One on Earth: Selected Works by Mark Baumer
Six years ago, in October 2016, writer, activist and performance artist Mark Baumer embarked on a barefoot walk across the United States as part of an effort to engage in dialogues about climate change and to raise money for FANG, a direct-action climate and social activist collective in Providence, Rhode Island. One hundred days into his journey, after rerouting to Florida to pursue a warmer southern route, he was fatally struck by a car.
Fence Books published The One on Earth: Selected Works of Mark Baumer in 2021. These selections include excerpts from the blog he kept while walking, a section devoted to job cover letters, various rejected poetry submissions, his statement of purpose that admitted him into the Brown University MFA program (formatted as a letter to his mother) and one novel titled At Some Point in The Last Nine Billion Years. The reader is guided through these pages by Baumer’s playful, unblinking approach to writing and living in a world on the brink of environmental crisis. The One on Earth was edited by Blake Butler and Shane Jones, with a preface by Claire Donato, all of whom were Mark’s friends.
Upon entering Mark’s work, I encounter a pulsing, crystalline, entropic realm. Where the quotidian, the cyber, the animal and the holy are all orbiting with equal gravity. Where the strewn lego is tended to with near unbearable affection. Where a piece of uncooked meat in the airport is going home to Virginia to meet his daughter for the first time. Where “I kissed the utility van before it drove away.” Where the morning smells like “a glass of milk.” Where a piece of grass looks at the SUV and wants to be the SUV. Where “Someone we didn’t know cooked us breakfast because we agreed to pay them.”
When faced with this kind of empathic (and often humorous) lucidity, I think of dreams—the subconscious realm of precise imagery and loose association. But here, I think, there is more that is awake, on a level we are simply unaccustomed to. Mark invites us to engage with existence in total, compressing the full range of emotional experience into slim, clairsentient stories. This work is not asleep, it is awake awake alive alive open open here—right here.
“This Great Story Begins with Someone Eating a Salad,” a concentrated two-page piece, depicts a couple (a man named Doug and an unnamed, ungendered narrator) distanced from one another after the loss of their child. Doug eats salad with a spoon in front of the television. “It’s weird when two people have a lot to talk about, but they end up not talking,” observes the narrator. The narrator then notices a glowing hole in their body. Doug, still watching television, does not notice. Once the narrator notices the glowing, an indeterminate amount of time passes while they gaze into this void with light. By the time they look up, Doug has gone, leaving behind a small pile of salad on the linoleum that the narrator begins to eat. The story has the odd quality of a photo negative, wherein areas of presumed darkness instead project a radiant, almost blinding light.
In the poetic essay “The Practice of Joy Before Death,” French theorist Georges Bataille considers the possibility of enigmatic harmony and a sense of articulate oneness, when at the cusp of crisis. He breaks from his typical dense form in the lines:
I enter into peace as I enter into a dark unknown
I fall in this dark unknown
I myself become this dark unknown
Bataille wrote this essay while witnessing the inexorable approach of World War II. Any critical extreme, any crisis, any emergency will bring humanity to a new evaluation of death. Bataille considers death to be more of a change of states than a complete and final end. In his mind, we humans are just a piece of life—as the maggot devours wood, so does the body return to the earth. I find parallels in Mark’s work: where there exists devastation (ecological catastrophe, Donald Trump’s inauguration) alongside beats of mundane euphoria (meditating below a billboard, a baseball game on the radio) and, flowing beneath, a real sense of all that is interconnected, for better or for worse. In a blog post from Christmas Day, 2016, Mark writes, “The world is full of so many ideas and people and places it’s hard to do everything, which is why it would be comforting to maybe dig one hole forever until that hole is where your dead body learns how to be dirt.”
Recently, I have been re-watching videos from Mark’s enormous YouTube archive, many of which are filmed on and around Brown’s campus. Living in Providence, having recently completed my MFA here, I often have the feeling that he is someone in my immediate community who I just haven’t met yet. As though, later today, on my walk to work, he might pass me on his bicycle and ask me if I am vlogging (a common question posed to the unsuspecting passerby in his absurdist improvised videos).
In his performance and written work, Mark moves with a curiosity most adults are out of practice with, he refuses to blindly accept the macro and micro innerworkings of societal norms (eating meat, or driving cars, or food waste). For instance, in this excerpt from the short story “I Am a Road,” the human realm is permeable, impressionable, certainly not fixed.
A small man in Georgia watched me kneel down and kiss the Atlantic Ocean. I told him I was walking across America. He smiled and pointed. “Use this road,” he said. I began walking. A few minutes after the first piece of sweat leaked out of me, a dead animal crumbling on the side of the road nodded and said, “It’ll be okay.” I walked until I was near some gasoline. Inside the bathroom for gasoline customers, I rubbed my face and hands on a sink. Then I left the bathroom and looked at the shelf of peanuts. A girl asked if I had seen her father. I put half a peanut in my mouth. The girl said, “I’m worried because sometimes he forgets he’s my father.”
This kind of defamiliarization, to me, may suggest a first step in redirecting our climate trajectory. That is, to be in the practice of asking simple, elemental questions of the way we go about things, or to look newly at mundane interactions, so as to shine a blunt light on our deep and passive habits.
In this way, ecological praxis in Mark’s work and life is inextricable—a chip bag on the side of the road is greeted, the human and the land are inseparable, pressed up against each other. As in his poem “B Careful” where he writes, “I wish I had a tiny bag of / ferns closer to my body.”
Mark’s body of work longs, in a way, for contact. In taking the epistolary form to a new super-level or in the act of placing one’s bare feet on the earth over and over and over again. Mark had the rare willingness to be awake for and soberly engaged with this sentient existence on earth—the heat and absurdity, the sweetness, the pain, the emotional vastness of being alive at this moment when we are looking extinction in the eye.
“So, I guess I woke up on a dead planet,” writes Mark, somewhere in Pennsylvania. “It still felt sort of alive. I still felt sort of alive.”