The Year of the Wombat

Madeline Lane-McKinley

Communism is for moms or it’s nothing.

2020 began just how so many of us thought it would: in flames. By January the bushfires that had grown for six months in Australia felt unstoppable. The scorched Amazon rainforest seemed like old news, as did the very notion of an Arctic fire. By the end of 2019, there were something like 7,860 recorded fires in California, where I live and where I have somehow grown used to the sight of my eight-year-old wearing a respirator mask. Most of the child-sized respirator masks have a fun design of some sort, and the mask they chose has a rainbow on it. These days, it hangs on a hook in their bedroom, along with some hats, hoodies, and a backpack. I say I’ve grown used to the sight, but in the way that pain can gather and settle without ever leaving.

Whether as fires or storms, earthquakes or floods, this familiarity with catastrophe looms everywhere. It isn’t quite seeable, precisely because it’s everything. At this point, it’s unclear how devastating the impact will be on wildlife in Australia, but there are estimates that over a billion animals have been killed by the bushfires and that species will go extinct. As the rest of the world followed these developments, stories began to circulate about wombats providing shelter to other animals. I read about wombats inviting not just other animals into their burrows, but also predators. I read about wombats even herding animals in need of refuge. I read about wombats as figures of leadership, but not quite.

Wombats build warrens, which are networked tunnels. A study by Australian zoologists mapped the architecture of warrens, one of which featured up to twenty-eight different entrances, eighty-nine meters of tunnels, and seventy-one portholes. A typical wombat creates several burrows. Some wombats construct over a dozen in their lifetime, and drift between them over time. Some will stay a few days in one place and then move onto another. Others will stay longer. They are solitary creatures but the burrows they construct are not for them alone. During extreme weather conditions, including bushfires, small mammals use these warrens for shelter. As wombats go from sleeping chamber to sleeping chamber, they leave behind and return to dwellings used by many creatures. While motivated to hunt and feed and care for themselves and other wombats, they have no need to own or extract. They drift, dwell, build, most of the time alone, yet in a way that is never quite alone.

The wombats are neither heroes nor leaders. For the most part they just want to be left alone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. What’s remarkable about the wombats is their ordinariness. Sharing your burrow is just what you do when you’re a wombat.

When the wombats went viral in a world overcrowded by miseries, a certain kind of hopefulness seemed possible, if not totally imaginable. The wombats, as this particular hopefulness would have it, found a way to become other than themselves. It was as if, according to this story, the wombats had transcended their instincts, in order to become the den mothers and herders of the apocalypse. But this vision of transcendence is hardly the utopian kernel. This vision is a false hope, making unthinkable what is far more profound about wombat life.

The wombats tell us something important about ourselves in what we want them to be. What we want wombats to be, it seems, is the story of what many of us want not just for ourselves but for each other. They make us wonder what could be.

Today in Oakland there are about four vacant houses for each unhoused person. And just as everywhere else, the rate of houselessness has been rising dramatically year by year. Like so many vacant houses in the McClymonds neighborhood of West Oakland, 2928 Magnolia Street is an investor-owned property. The house had been sitting vacant for nearly two years in late 2019, when it was reclaimed by Moms 4 Housing, a group of working, unsheltered black mothers. On November 18, they moved into the house with their children, naming the residence “Moms’ House.”

Moms’ House is where Dominique Walker’s one-year-old son, Amir, took his first steps, and where her daughter, Aja, celebrated her fifth birthday. It’s where Misty Cross’s daughter Destiny, age twelve, found
a quiet place to do her homework in the afternoons. In a recent short documentary, Destiny explained how much she worries for her mom, “because she puts herself out there,” and for her little sister, “who’s already falling in love with having a place to call home.” This sense of dread is a palpable element of Moms’ House. But so is the vibrancy of political possibility. We could describe this as mutual aid or militant care, or whatever else. A hopeful political energy surrounds Moms’ House, bringing hundreds to that block on Magnolia Street, and thousands more to support the occupation from afar.

Just before dawn on January 14, a Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Department ordered a militarized raid of the Moms’ House. They showed up in tanks, carrying AR-15 rifles, and wearing tactical gear. They broke down the front door, and sent a robot into the house to scan the premises. There were four arrests: two mothers, and two of their supporters. Aware of the possibility of a raid, the mothers were prepared in many ways, but not for its extreme militarization. It’s hard enough to imagine this scene at all, much less what it might have felt like for Destiny, Aja, Amir, or any of the other children in the household, had their mothers not done their best to protect them, and arranged for them to stay somewhere else.

That day a huge crowd grew on Magnolia Street. Just like the night before. At 4 o’clock, a community barbecue was called. After nightfall, Tolani King, one of the mothers arrested, stepped out in front of her supporters. “I don’t even really know where I’m sleeping tonight, so you’ve gotta understand that,” she explained. Some of the people there offered her a place to stay that night, and others offered a place for the night after that. These were all beautiful gestures, but not the sort of structural changes needed. “Tomorrow is the next step of my life,” she told them, “and it’s still back here.” King looked out to her supporters, standing strong with the other mothers, and she took a deep breath. Through her exhaustion she began to smile, and she put her hands together. She had one more thing to say: “this is only the beginning of a movement that has to move.”

Within a week of the arrest, Moms 4 Housing announced that the Oakland Community Land Trust reached an agreement with the city of Oakland and Wedgewood Properties, and they were entering negotiations to buy the house at market value. They would be able to stay in their home, with their kids. It was a moment of victory that brought with it longing for another world. The night of the announcement, I called a friend who’d been active in the struggle to protect Moms’ House. I expected it to be a celebratory conversation. But my friend had moved beyond the immediate relief and toward the future: “They should be given the house for free.”

Moments like this impart crucial lessons for community organizing, but the lessons don’t come with a map for how to get out of this nightmare. More than a map, these moments pronounce our longings, and in doing so, show us ways to move, and how to struggle.

A new year — what a painful notion, in too many ways, for this world that is always ending. If only a year could be new. We could get lost in that thought, though. I have lost too many friends to that thought.

Utopia is often perceived as what it has sometimes been: a territory to be claimed and violently dispossessed, always falsely in the name of hope. It has meant the site of capitalism’s reinvention, rather than the process of its unimagining. It has meant the promise of an elsewhere that is, all the while, still trapped here. But it has also meant more.

Ursula K. Le Guin called this other utopianism “non-Euclidean” — a utopianism against capitalism, against colonization, and against power in all articulations. “If utopia is a place that does not exist, the way to get there is by the way that is not a way,” she wrote, nearly forty years ago. “The nature of the utopia I am trying to describe is such that if it is to come, it must already exist.” That is to say, the description was never the point. And getting there was never the point. This is not a utopianism of blueprints, plans, and programs, but a utopianism based in practice, methods, and experiments. It is a utopia that becomes more understandable through collective care and collective struggle, and through the struggle that is care, and the care that is struggle. By now, if we are to speak of utopia at all, let it move toward this way that is not a way. And if we are to give up on utopia, let it be because a better word for our desires is revolution.

With the predictability of catastrophes — leading us to wonder, each instance, where next? — there are other rhythms to be heard, and more ways of moving. This year of struggles could take a century, but it will have to continue.