Oil and Plume: On Habitat

by Mara Jebsen


It came to me at the hairdresser’s. A sort of image-idea about birds and goodness. Karen had me in one of those retro-space-age bubble-things and the air was roaring around my ears, drying. “I grow blonder as I speak,” I kept thinking, though I wasn't speaking. Just thinking loudly through the rarified air.

Over by the window, Karen, all wrist, was erasing wings of silver-black from the temples of her client. The client’s beautiful beak-like nose grew ever more defined in the sun of the windowpane; the tufts drifting like feathers to the linoleum floor, mixing as they fell. They landed silver-brown in sunlight, like tree-bark in winter, like strokes of pencil-lead . . .

There were many women in the room: another client with hair like my sister’s (dry clouds springing from the skull; tall as an outstretched hand). I saw the hairdresser press a little piece between the knuckles of two outstretched fingers, and scissor a bit off. The girl’s eyes gleamed joyfully towards themselves in the mirror. Her hairdresser's own hair was similar, but oiled down to shaped curls. The women seemed ambivalent about this act of 'taming’; were more intent on the power of the raw material. And in its cutting, the space between them filled with camaraderie so palpable, it was nearly communion.

Two summers ago, when there was the big oil spill, the images of birds showed up first on the internet and newspapers, and then increasingly in my head unbidden, and in the dreams of my friends, and my own. What a terrible thing–birds like zombies risen from death to make us pay for sins. Can't live, can't fly. To me, the birds all looked like herons, because herons already look like a thing returned from the otherworld to give us one last chance to repent.

In this salon at the edge of the gentrified part of Park Slope, Brooklyn, a woman sweeps, and several types of hair collect against the broom's face. My own brown-blonde, the black-grey, the blurred brown curls. I am impressed by human variety. And with this fibrous thing that is waste, that is part of us and not part of us.

When the oil spill was in the news, a girlfriend of mine told me that human hair can be used to help clean oil from the ocean. I can imagine making a film about it. Salons all over the country, sweeping, piling, donating. Imagine bristling bags full of American hair . . . disgusting but wonderful.

As an ambivalent resident of Park Slope, Brooklyn, I try to find out where I stand—in relation to other New Yorkers, and in relation to birds. One of the benefits of my neighborhood is a cheap yoga studio made almost entirely of windows–an oval of glass.

The teacher one day annoys me because she has such a plaintive tone. “In our culture, rest is not something we know how to do,” she keeps saying. “In our culture, we’re really bad at. . .” Then she says: “Everything in here is the exact same as everything out there.” My mind bucks; I don’t buy it. Meanwhile, what she's teaching me about how to breathe is making my whole body feel like there is new air bubbling in my blood, and that air is full of music.

Because my 300 square foot apartment is across the street from the yoga studio, I catch, in the crease where the window swoops into an oval-shape, a perfectly framed vision of my own home and a patch of blue sky. Its windows elongate; the fire-escape looks almost holy.

Seeing your life from the outside makes you a sentimentalist. I think of all the living I do in there. Is it good living? A lot of it is happy . . .

I had a friend in college who, when she felt miserable, donated blood. She later became a nurse.

Blood, hair, energy. The desire to serve. There must be some way to feel that the human body is not a sort of parasite on the environment, especially when I am sure it is capable of so much clean appetite, such joy and goodness.

I had another female friend who used to cut my hair in the backyard of a different Brooklyn apartment. The place was cheap and illegal, and no one maintained it. The yard climbed to our necks with something like kudzu, mice and wild roses. In a clear space I'd sit in a chair, and she’d trim away, making a fibrous, tinny music.

She didn't sweep up the hair. I didn't like seeing my hair on the raw dirt and the first time, I stooped to pick it up. I guess I'm superstitious. I didn't want the dirt to think I was dead. “Don't worry,” she said, “the hair will be gone tomorrow. The birds will take it for their nests.”