There’s a quote I love by Susan Sontag from her collection of essays On Photography: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
These lines never fail to move me, because there is an inherent nostalgia in their honesty. We can never truly preserve a moment in time. Trying to only makes its transience even more obvious. Attempting to capture and still a moment, Sontag tells us, is the fastest way to come face to face with time’s passing. And yet in a photograph an echo of the past does remain, forever preserved in the archive of things even after the actual moment has fled.
According to science, salt, or sodium chloride, has over 14,000 uses – it can season food, restore a sponge, remove watermarks from wood, deodorize armpits, detoxify bodies, set color in clothes, kill bacteria, freshen breath, emulsify skin, kill slugs, preserve food.
Today I want to talk about preservation.
What is salt if not the oldest form of preservation? A way to slow the quickness of time? To keep its power of decay at bay, if only for a little while?
In his book Salt, Mark Kurlansky tells readers that a history of salt is in fact a history of the world. The body needs salt to function and since the beginning of time, civilizations have been finding ways to exploit and trade it.
When colonizers first embarked on the seas, how far they could travel was limited by how much food they could carry. When sailors discovered they could soak food in brine to preserve it, that salted fish and meat lasted longer, their colonial exploits expanded. Their violence spread over the seas, salty themselves, and beyond.
What does it mean to preserve something? In today’s world, who chooses what gets to last?
Readers of Audre Lorde will recognize this quote, lifted from the epilogue of her book Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
In a blog post about the quote titled “Selfcare as Warfare,” Sarah Ahmed reminds us that for some people, to last is to embark on war. To last in a body that the world does not want to see last, radical act. To continue to love people that the world does not want you to love, a fight. To flourish in a skin color the world is trying to hold down, defiance.
Bodies that are brown or black or any color that does not quite fit into the picture culture wants to paint of itself. Bodies that want to love the kinds of bodies society tells them not to. Bodies that are fat or alter-abled or do not have the right religion or do not have the right eyes or the right hair or the right vocabulary or the right passport. These are the bodies that go to war when they choose to care for themselves, when they shirk the shadows and seek out visibility – to “slice out a moment” from their life “and freeze it.” They thread themselves into the future.
I’m reminded of course of the anti-trans bathroom bills in passing now in North Carolina. It has become a newsworthy event for trans teens to go to the bathroom in their schools. Trans people open themselves to violence on a daily basis to do the kind of rote tasks many of us so often take for granted.
To become visible is to strike out a place for oneself in the currents of time – to say I am here, and I refuse to disappear.
How do you find salt? Lifted from dried up seas, dug up from salt licks, panned from living oceans. Hundreds of feet below ground salt rivers flow, waiting to be exhumed. The early globe is sliced to bits with trade routes established solely for the transfer of salt – a commodity so precious it sometimes doubled as money.
To be worth one’s weight in salt is to be deserving of your pay. Our English word salary comes from the Latin salarium which means salt. Because rumor has it, salt is what Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in.
Salacious comes from the Latin salax which refers to someone in love, or more appropriately, in a salted state.
Since the beginning of time, animals have plodded trails to salt licks. Early humans followed their tracks to uncover the saline sources. You see, people have always understood the power of preservation. Whether they used the power for good is another story.
When we archive something, we save its place in history. We give it weight, belonging, sometimes a shelf or a frame. We create space for it among other narratives. Our histories inform our present. The stories we tell and retell shape our tomorrows. What we choose to archive, to add to our spaces of preservation, are direct reflections of what culture – at least parts of culture – finds valuable.
When the tides of time wash over us, as they invariably do, what is left behind? What do we give to the libraries of our future?
Archives need not be static, dusty shelves filled with past ornaments and withered pages. They can be evolving, breathing ideas that move alongside culture, pressing up against belief systems, normativity, stasis. They construct concurrent realities that give breathing room for other bodies and document, if you will, an alternative truth to the one shown on the news each night.
A literary journal is kind of archive. Blogs, Google maps, and Facebook newsfeeds are kinds of living archives. Twitter? A forever refreshing archive. When we “like” a comment or photograph, we give it a kind of historical weight. The things we salt with attention get folded into the future.
We are all of us archivists, armed with our own kinds of brine. When you see something powerful, don’t let it slip through your fingers, preserve its power, fix it from decay. Make it last.
A version of this essay first appeared as a spoken editorial introduction to Amsterdam’s reading series VERSO /.
Genevieve Hudson is an American writer living in Amsterdam. She earned an MFA from Portland State University, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bitch, Portland Monthly, The Rumpus, The Collagist, Alpinist, Believer Logger, No Tokens, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere.