(Burnt) Umber, by Noah Strouse

1.  A natural brown earth containing ferric oxide and manganese oxides, used as pigment.

2.  Any of the shades of brown produced by umber in its various states.

3.  Yes, the one in your high-school studio art class’ supply cabinet.


1.  (Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia) After their ancestral home was seized by massive government authorized land concessions and ambiguously (and irrelevantly) legal logging operations forced them out of the jungle and onto the plains, the tribal men and women, who now make their lives around illegal (relevantly, as the government often burns everything down) gemstone mining operations involving a network of impossibly narrow holes and tunnels with zero equipment or machinery or structural support and no way to climb back out of the forty-foot-deep-pitch-black holes other than wedging your knees and elbows into shallow rivets (of questionable stability) lining the wet walls of the vertically ascending cylinder, are, by intent or attrition, the same deep burnt blood-rust umber as the earth they inhabit.


(Note: this use of umber includes a shifting wash of cigarette smoke pouring from the infested belly of the pock-marked landscape).

2. (Ibid.) With the sun having set a good two hours ago and the rain showing no sign of giving up, the washed out dirt roads sliding beneath the three motionless vans, vans alternatively described as stuck, trapped, locked, fucked, or swallowed by the jungle, roads that shrink so apathetically beneath the van’s squealing tires so that Ponheary’s simple long-distance advice is to “sell the van,” roads that pull you in by the ankles so that Jas exclaims “oh this is what you meant when you asked if we were sure we wanted to come to Ratanakiri during the rainy season,” roads that yawn at your evening plans, roads that politely suggest against riders, that instead kindly request pushers, roads that bring together excited Barang and infinitely entertained Khmer in an absolute giddy shit-show of lightning and thunder and one-two-three!-moi-pi-bey!-slipping and sliding and knocking each other down and almost getting crushed by a few thousand pounds of vehicle slip’n’sliding their way uphill for who the fuck knows how long let’s just walk, it is these roads which will spray their sickly fluid umber across your skin until you belong to the forest. (Note: semi-permanent; have fun in the shower.)
Do we become the spaces we inhabit, or do they become us?


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