If Max was good at one thing it was keeping a hammock in motion; he’d certainly had lots of practice. He never strayed very far from home territory without his swinging breezy easy chair. Fashioned of very lightweight closely woven fishnet that is eminently transportable and stretches to conform to one’s body for utmost comfort, it was his dearest traveling companion. Especially here near the equator there is no more pleasant way to idle away the hours, thoughtful or otherwise, than in a trusty hammock.
With its sultry moist air demanding a minimum of clothing and lending itself to torpor, there was, in his mind, no more placid state of physical being. While most people consider the sweaty tropics to be grossly uncomfortable, to Max, at least in his chosen lifestyle, at his late stage of existence, it was exactly the opposite. If one’s daily life includes hard work or excessive physical exertion, then functioning in the tropics can be a decided chore, but with the gentle movement of the hammock in the shade of a tropical forest canopy, it is total relaxation—especially compared to dealing with cold climates that require bundling up with lots of clothes and evoking nervous, shivery movement to keep warm. He’d done an extended life-experience stint in the far north, living rough in Yukon, building a house from scratch and surviving three long brutal winters. The older he got, the more he enjoyed the steamy, languorous lifestyle, the easy slug-like pace of the tropics.
Today, the hammock was really swinging. This morning’s message and last night’s dream signaled big changes ahead for him, his extended family, and his world. He’d awakened very disturbed and agitated from vivid dreamwork. He was shaken out of a comfortable sleep thinking, ‘I don’t want to wake up.’ He soon found himself preparing to dive into a sea of fire thinking he should be concerned or afraid, but nothing could deter him or erase his inimitable smile. As the fire raged around him, the sea turned into his house as he marveled at how little it mattered… and then he woke for real.
Then, in the morning, the electronic note from Paulo, “Off your duff, old man, the forest is calling. Anything you can do to help may tip the balance in the favor of the ancient trees. Besides, you won’t want to miss the excitement. We’ll be expecting you.” Expecting me? I’m perfectly happy to spend an indefinite time wearing out this hammock.
But when he scrolled down to read the attached Environewswire article, he was taken aback by the weight of the situation, while still disbelieving the actual words…
What does this mean? Am I supposed to drop everything and hit the road on a few hours notice? Jeez, I haven’t done something that spontaneous in…must be a hundred years. How much can one person do anyway? How am I going to make a difference? What about my well-earned sedentary half-life in the hammock?
He was huffing and wheezing, struggling for air, as he plodded his way up the trail, each step meeting the ground with apparent and vocal effort. Out of breath but still truckin’—he patted himself on the back. The air was redolent with the unmistakable resinous, moist, cloistered aroma of a dense stand of giant conifers. Narrow shafts of sunlight emerged from peepholes in an otherwise enveloping cloud cover and, coaxed into motion by a gentle breeze that whispered in the upper branches, danced through the primeval forest canopy. Breaking into myriad speckles of light as they descended through multiple layers of branches towards the thick, springy duff of the compost covered forest floor, the rays furtively illuminated dollops of moisture nestled on a bank of hefty sword ferns and azalea. Heaven’s dew, frequent visitor to the ancient forest carpeting the windward mountains of the Pacific Northwest, materializes out of the morning mist to grace its flora with steady and invigorating nourishment.
Every time he had the pleasure, the great good fortune to be in the presence of this, the cathedral of the gods, he was awestruck anew by its all-encompassing magic. He felt moved by spirits emanating from individual trees and stood inconsequential in the cumulative power of their conjoined presence. A cadre of behemoths, they were breathtaking triumphs of the plant kingdom.
Many other parts of the world have great trees and uplifting arboreal landscapes—the temperate rainforests of Chile, Northern Europe and Siberia especially come to mind, not to mention the dizzyingly varied tropical forests that cover much of the world. Wherever natural forests—unsullied by human interventions—appear, their overriding sense of peace and comfort, venerability and stature—they’ve stood their ground and seen so much—are universal traits. But nothing on Earth compares to these ancient wonders.
The overbearing, cabin-fever-inducing fall-winter-spring rains—which one imagines will never stop, which make the weak and susceptible pray for summer, which cast a pall over the spirits of all (except those possessing the writer’s gift; the clouds, you know, are fecund and drench us with inspiration), which once inside one’s clothes make it feel like the cold, clammy discomfort will permanently haunt one’s joints, which are capable of emboldening even lowly fungi to invade one’s domicile—all mark the perfect climate for producing the world’s greatest, grandest, most inspiring trees.
Tropical rainforests are spectacular enough. They may harbor as many as two hundred different tree species on a single acre—in some regions dozens of different oaks in that cozy little space. In Malaysia, seven hundred varieties, equal to the entire catalog of indigenous trees in all of North America, can be found in just 25 acres.
As tall as the tropical forest can reach at times, and as densely as it may try to fill its allotted share of our Earth, when Cascadian old growth is compared in terms of biomass, it contains four times the plant matter per acre. The maritime Pacific Northwest harbors the largest species in every conifer genus—the only exception being the juniper, which grows in dryer climates. The most imposing of these giants are nearly twice the height of the tallest conifers found anywhere else on earth.
The unique climactic blend of cool wet winter and warm dry summer gives cone bearers a head start here over flowering trees. Most of the world’s temperate forests receive more precipitation in summer than winter, giving deciduous trees with their bigger leaves a natural advantage. With few exceptions they dominate, but in the Northwest they are stymied by the lack of moisture in the summer when their leaves are out. Conifers on the other hand, are able to photosynthesize throughout the cool winter—whenever the temperature stays above forty-three degrees—when moisture is plentiful, and thrive when temperatures limit their plunge into the frigid range.
Now—as he reveled in the splendor of this awesome forest cathedral—much to his and many other people’s dismay and disbelief, an anachronistic throwback movement, reminiscent of the bad old days when the human race soiled and despoiled its nest, has once again begun to advocate logging these ancient forests.
For nearly a thousand years, they have been kept pristine and inviolate, treated with the highest reverence. For all these generations such mercenary cravings to exploit the Earth Mother’s greatest offspring have been considered unseemly, and to many, blasphemy itself.
The need to ensure the health and well being of the world’s forests, the insistence that they be retained in their natural state, became sacrosanct in the wake of the near death experience the world’s ecosystem had gone through in the degradations and ruinations of the early 21st century. The ancient forest had always spawned its staunch defenders but until the abhorrent and unimaginably destructive fruits of mass deforestation and excessive burning of fossil fuels overwhelmed the Earth’s natural balancing and healing capabilities, the ‘economic’ worldview and its deification of profit and personal gain held intransigent sway over the minds of the major part of humanity, especially its leadership. Great corporate wealth exercised control of the cultural ethos through the media. It held dominion, an almost hypnotic stranglehold over society.
Now, after all this time, the lure of materialism is again in the ascendancy; the epic environmental battles of early modern times may have to be reenacted. Well, it sure won’t happen without a struggle—not if the Exclaimer Family and its worldwide hugger brethren have a say on the matter.
Near to hyperventilating as he reached the rocky crest of the first ridge, the canopy opened up to reveal a grand perspective. It was easily past time to rest up and take in the view, not often come by in a dense natural forest. Ridge after jagged green ridge rose in parallel, culminating in a distant, 5,000-foot peak. The enveloping cloud cover typical of morning had considerably lightened; remnants of small clouds nestled into mountain crevices and wispy fog banks huddled in the valleys.
These forests in the mountains of Southwest Oregon are the most varied in the Northwest. This area is a bridge that melds the climates of the wet Cascades where hemlock, grand and Douglas firs, and western red cedar predominate with the drier Sierras typified by ponderosa and sugar pine, Shasta red fir, and incense cedar. It serves as a transition home for both ecosystems.
Individual large trees were clearly identifiable on the nearest ridge from their subtly differing greens, shapes, and statures. Down below, invisible and nearly mute through the dense forest flowed Cripple Creek. Here on the ridge the overview was clear, open, and nearly complete; under the trees it was dark, moist, close, and limited.
The old saw, “can’t see the forest for the trees” was nowhere more striking and pertinent than here under the great canopy. The trees in this thick old forest totally dominate our vision and overwhelm the underlying inorganic landscape. The dominion of the organic world constrains our perspective, narrows our vistas and restricts our view of the world beyond. We feel the essence of individual trees and become fixated by the wonder of the giant ones. However, we can barely see a few hundred feet in the distance, let alone have the slightest idea what lies on the next ridge or even if there is one. We have to deal with the trees exclusively, we can’t see forests or discern mountains or valleys. We hear the joyous chatter of birds, crickets, and frogs rendered invisible in the arboreal thicket, and detect the dulcet sound of running water much sooner than our eyes alight on it.
We are enclosed in a cathedral of the monarchs of the plant kingdom, tried and tested by the ages, representing the apex of the world’s flora. This forest’s vast expanse, stretching for hundreds of miles as it straddles the spine of these great mountain chains, changes with every step but is always just as grand—a green canopy that consistently reaches twenty stories, and a lot more when singular trees insist on standing out.
The most venerated veterans are nearly eight hundred years old. Thirty generations of humanity have witnessed the life of one tree. Can they be casually and unceremoniously ‘liquidated’ and sold for personal profit? As stalks of corn or hemp?
The Exclaimer family retreat was five hundred feet above the creek on a south facing clearing. It was the family’s genesis and ancestral home as well as its communications and planning center. Though Exclaimers are spread around the globe in nine locations in urban, rural, and forest settings, the original home site here on the mountain, accessible only by a half-day’s walk at a minimum from the nearest road, is its functional heart. All home sites are essentially autonomous but there are many facets of family life where Exclaimers operate as one entity. Buildings, for instance, can be large and expensive endeavors so they are treated as community projects—the costs are born by the family at large and ample crews of workers show up from all over the world to help put them together.
Considering the gravity of the threat to their cherished forest ecosystem, all of the family’s central characters would be present on the ridge, most connected through the ether via satellite. While their own structure was intentionally loose and amorphous, they had comprehensive and far-flung connections for organizing and activating political opposition.
Over the centuries since Entropy Gaia—the global ecological disaster—society has evolved into a curious mixture of primitive and rustic at one pole; by choice because it was deemed a healthier lifestyle and by necessity because the raw energy simply did not exist for the world’s people to maintain their former plush and profligate standards; and the latest technology on the other, though today’s scientific and technological advances do not match in quantity, scope or pace the fantastic “knowledge” explosion of the third millennial cusp.
Moreover, today’s research is dedicated largely to the advancement of the race, as opposed to the profit of particular individuals. The compulsion to make every discovery as soon as possible for the wealth generating potential that might reside within has been replaced with the esoteric and altruistic search for the secrets of the universe. Practical science, relating to the mundane, has matured, reached a plateau; for communications, for transportation, for health care, for the comfort of daily living. What remains are refinements, detail work. Besides this has been the age of limitations. The vast resources necessary for far reaching scientific advancements have simply not been available or deemed of requisite importance to warrant their great expense.
Sufficiently rested he made his way down towards the creek and stopped to say hello and give a big hug to his favorite sugar pine tree. This tree was a hugger’s delight, a giant in a field of giants, fourteen feet thick and more than 200 feet tall. Sugar pine is nowhere near as prolific as ponderosa pine—it grows in a constricted area compared to the widespread range of its more renowned cousin—but it is fatter, taller and has a larger, more beautiful crown. However its true claim to distinction are its cones, the largest of its genera, at nearly 2 feet long.
He hiked on…Thank heavens for a little trek downhill. I may imagine myself as still full of bluster but this old beater bod sure doesn’t respond the way it did when I was eighty or a hundred…through a small patch of millennial old growth that remained from before EG. Less than one quarter of one percent of North America’s original primeval forests survived the land clearing, logging, landslides and wildfires, the poisonings, pestilences and diseases, the great droughts and tyrannical weather of those times. To the untrained eye, it was no different than the regenerated forests of the post-EG era. Neither did any of the actual trees from that time remain. Nonetheless, the forest and the land it stood on exhibited a slight but scientifically quantifiable quality and stature clearly different and clearly looming above the surrounding terra.
Several factors entered into these trees greater size and health compared to their cousins of the new third millennia forests. Their soil had never been stripped of nutrients and cover by bulldozer logging; neither had it been baked in the summer nor washed away in the winter rains as in the cutover areas. These trees grew in soil that had taken tens of thousands of years for nature to create and it would take that time again to establish anew the highest fertility in the defiled lands. As a rule, these trees are healthier and less susceptible to pestilence and disease. As a result, they are more varied and therefore more representative of true climax forest, nature’s ultimate achievement, acme of biological creation, here represented in a spectacular pastiche of the world’s biggest trees.
He was one of those old timers who like to remind everyone of their age, more to elicit the opposite response than any honest kvetching. “You’re not so old,” they’d say, and then sincerely try to reassure him with shopworn tritisms—“You’re only as old as you feel,” or “It’s your attitude that counts,” or “Look at the way you get around,” or “You’re still kicking, you’ve got a long way to go.” Any one of which would elicit—“Yeah, but I’m gettin’ mighty creaky” or, “Yeah, sure, but I just can’t keep up like I used to.”
All the while, no one was more surprised at how good a shape he was in than himself. Relatively short—small but somehow not small looking—his stance was straightforward and confident, but not in a pretentious or haughty way; he appeared relaxed, comfortable in his place. His walk still had a healthy bounce—no perceptible gimps or clunks or rattles typical of a machine nearing the end of its planned lifespan. He could even manage a saunter when the mood struck. One hundred and forty three was no longer the physical handicap of only a few centuries before. Everything was gray of course, and he’d earn the nickname ‘Wolfman’ if he didn’t keep his ear hairs trimmed, but with the exception of wrinkled hands and weathered face, his body could be mistaken for someone forty or fifty years his junior. Not that I haven’t subjected it to its share of abuse.
He stopped by the creek—it was impossible to pass by without pausing to take a little time to feel tranquillized by its meditative gurgling and peaceful aura. He scoped out a spot on the high water platform where a suitable place could be found to get comfortable—as much as one could, that is, in a bed of river rocks. He cleared away a few small ones from in front of a fortuitously shaped small boulder that he could lean back against, edged down with a perfunctory little grunt, and tried his best to snuggle his butt into place. By now the mists of morning had dissipated in deference to a warming midday sun that glittered off the gently rippling water.
Moving water always brought out his reflective side. Its ability to never be the same in a micro sense for two consecutive nanoseconds, even as it might go for a whole season without changing its overall pattern, invariably fascinated him and stoked his thought processes. Constant change within constancy, ever the same while continuously in motion. Even as its component droplets move inexorably down slope towards their destination, it remained a single unbroken, seemingly stationary whole.
The creek was early fall lazy with the bubbly sounds and soft whooshes of a stream that was in no hurry. Water bugs, with their big pod-like feet raced back and forth across the surface, others camouflaged as little twigs made their way casually on the bottom. Occasional leaves floated by. It was whisper quiet until he was startled out of his serenity, literally jolted out of his composure, by the raucous honking of a gaggle of geese flying through, skimming just above the creek scouting for tasty morsels. It took a few seconds to catch his breath, chuckling with the irony of it. Lining the far bank, still in the riparian zone, was a thicket of cottonwood that stand knee deep in the water when the stream rises after every good rain. Above the bank were cottonwood and alder and scrub oak fighting for breathing space, leaning way out over the water—the conifers to their backs crowding and towering over them.
After a half hour lazing in the sun, he headed back up the other side of the canyon and soon again began laboring for air. Chugging and wheezing, the steep incline of the trail forced him to stop every few hundred feet to catch his breath. He grunted and sighed without even a sympathetic soul nearby to listen in or commiserate. I sure like to whine about getting old and creaky, don’t I? But here it’s just a matter of pacing. If I could only heed even my own counsel, I’d get there with a tenth of the grunts and half the effort. When Max had a destination in mind, an end result, he was generally incapable of relaxing until it was in his sights. Occasionally, wrapped in a calm mood, with time to spare and without a clear goal, he would walk ever so slowly and contentedly, in tune with his surroundings and completely at ease, no perceptible quickening of breath or noticeable body tension.
Just walking fast wasn’t much of a problem, but uphill, a completely different matter. Charge ahead…stop and rest. Charge ahead...stop and rest. If I could just train myself to keep up a slow but steady pace I’d probably get there faster and in better shape. Regardless, it sure was a lot easier to do this a hundred years ago.
When he reached the outskirts of the settlement, the trail leveled out and he was gladdened to see that it had been paved since the last time he’d come. The meter wide trail was built of the bright blue and green serpentine rock widely distributed in this area. The rocks’ surfaces were carefully fitted and leveled for easy walking. It was far from a smooth pavement, but superior to the muddy mess it would turn into during the rainy season if left unimproved.
Rousted out of his appreciation of the new trail, he looked over to see one of the best examples of his genetic gift coming to greet him from a small cabin nestled in the woods a short ways off the trail. He was tall and handsome, with a soft smile beaming from above the thicket of scraggly beard typical of the family’s young men. His intense deep-set brown eyes, separated by a formidable though not outrageous beak, were gentle, open and friendly. His light nearly European skin contrasted with Max’s much darker South Asian visage, but still there were clearly identifiable, albeit subtle, resemblances. He sported denims and flannel plaid shirt, age-old costume of the Northwest forests.
“Well, look at you,” clicking his finger “...uh...uh…”
“Tomas,” the young man assisted.
“Right, right, how the hell are ya? I haven’t seen you in nearly seven years. You sure have changed. What have you been doing? And how’s your mom?” He was firing off the questions so fast Tomas had no time to answer. Catching himself, “Sorry, after a week of travel and out of breath from humping the trail, I feel like I just drank a dozen cups of coffee. Need to reestablish my slow-talking, country-living, pastoral bearings. Go ahead, I’ll give you time to answer.”
“I’ve been doing pretty good, came here about seven years ago from Portland. Haven’t seen mom in more than ten years. Her last email came from Marrakech or Srinagar or some other far away burg. You know her. She’s not the type to stay in one place very long. I’m surprised she stuck it out with me as long as she did. Where’ve you been?”
“I’ve been living mostly in the Philippines, at the Cebu mountain home site, enjoying the tropical countryside. I also spend a lot of time, maybe a third of the year in Cebu City.”
“What’s it like, gramps? I was contemplating it as my next life destination.”
“Cebu Island is long and narrow with a spine of mountains running down the center. Our home site straddles the ridge. In the one place it isn’t completely overrun with steamy rainforests, we can see the neighboring islands on both sides. It’s actually very close to the city and the beaches. Of course, in a country consisting of thousands of islands, almost every place is near the beaches.”
“I guess swimming in warm water is a whole different species, isn’t it?”
“Compared to here where the water never really warms up, you bet. Here the best I can do is dive in before I have a chance to let the chilly water change my mind, and stay in just long enough to wash the day off and cool down before I’m practically repelled out of it. There you can lollygag around in the nearly bathtub warm water until you’ve half turned into a prune before you think to leave.”
“I will have to get there some time. Right now I seem to be fixed in place.”
“Not to worry, not to hurry, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
“Agreed. I’m feeling the need to get moving, but ironically I seem to have a lot more theoretical interest in new places than actual motivation to go and experience them.”
“The problem with seeing from a distance, young man, is you get a very limited picture of reality. Tropical and temperate lifestyles are more different than January and July in the Northwest.”
“Think of it, we spend a lot of time outdoors here in July, but still all of our structures are designed to placate cold weather. In the tropics, everything is outdoors; there’s much less distinction between inside and outside. Tropical buildings do get closed off somewhat in the hot season to take advantage of natural cooling processes, but it’s pretty minor compared to what happens here, where we shut up inside to ward off the cold.”
“Fascinating. That truly never would have occurred to me.”
“Always more to learn.”
“I guess. What’s the draw of the Philippines? Don’t we have special reasons for where the family has set down roots?”
“I believe it was a combination of factors. It had a long background as a polyglot, internationalist nation with a mixture of races and fluency in English—don’t forget it was spoken by only one-eighth of the world’s people back in the twenty-first century—and had a tragic history brought on by severe overpopulation that resulted in extreme wasting of the environment and a very high death rate in EG—less than half their population survived. It was like a laboratory of how to really mess up Earth Mother and subsequently strive towards bringing the ecosystem back to life. The contrast to our home in Costa Rica, probably the best preserved tropical nation on Earth back then, couldn’t be more stark, though today, with a millennium to recuperate, it’s difficult to discern the difference simply through observation.”
“Besides, belying its placid feel, it’s got some big time volcanoes and frequent tropical storms—adds a little excitement to life.”
“And here all we get is cold, clammy rain.”
“Good for trees.”
“And for me, so far.”
“So what’ve you been up to?”
“Well…I’ve been hanging out, enjoying life, mostly trying to discover myself. I figure at 22 I’ve got plenty of time for accomplishment, for serving the world, or whatever oddball or crazy thing might come to mind. Meanwhile, I’m trying to understand how plants grow, how a stack of boards becomes a house, the march of the seasons. I tend to feel small and reverent and thankful here in the forest thinking I should be content, but at the same time a little antsy to get on with something.” He hesitated, “I…I’m ready, even a little over ready for some type of mission or endeavor to carry me away, but I also understand that patience is the hardest and most important lesson for a guy my age. As I say, I feel cemented in the ground here.”
“Believe me,” Max responded, “patience, confidence in one’s self, faith in the future are lifelong challenges. The only difference between young and old is we old timers have been forced to live life and watch it unfold at its own sometimes excruciatingly slow pace, irrespective of our own longings for changes to come faster. I floundered in my goals and wandered the planet for a long time and only felt that I really started to come into myself at around the century mark. Of course I thought I was pretty smart at thirty, sixty, eighty and a hundred and even a few years ago, but at each milepost I invariably discover that I have a lot more to learn. All I can say in consolation is it does get better, or can get better, at least it did for me.”
Tomas felt privileged for Max’s little dollops of wisdom, thankful for the opportunity, forged by the difficulty their culture, their world faced, to spend some time with the crusty old man, “I sure hope I have as many answers by the time I get to your age.”
“Hah,” a little too loudly. “Well, thanks,” He never did take compliments unselfconsciously, “You may well follow in the old man’s footsteps. You certainly impress me all right; I see a great mind there, but of course I’m prejudiced. Hey, I gotta go relax a bit. Just one thing. How many greats are you anyway?”
“Greats?” Tomas took a second to catch on to Max’s meaning. “Three—great-great-great-grandson. Make you feel ancient?”
“You’re not coaxing me to kvetch about how old and creaky I’m getting, are you?” Tomas chuckled. “But do let me apologize for my aging memory. Family trees are so complicated and convoluted there sure is no way for me to remember where you fit in, but at least I should have recalled your name.”
“I forgive you.” They hugged and made arrangements for a hike the next day.
Iron Rice Bowl
Tomas stayed in a little cabin on the ‘outskirts’ of the settlement. About two-thirds of the permanent residents live in these small houses either tucked into the woods or on the edge of a clearing. Except for the village center consisting of a cozy courtyard and the buildings that frame it and the small houses that try their best not to encroach on natural clearings, all reasonably level openings in the canopy are reserved for gardens. Being on the top of a sunny south-facing ridge helps for food production. There’s also a bit of terracing, but the combination of minimal yields and the extra work involved has kept the hillside in a mostly natural state. Extensive gardening and preserving for the winter combined with solar greenhouses to extend the growing season allows the family to grow about half the food necessary to feed its average thirty to forty permanent residents.
There are always a few rock solid meat and potato eaters, anachronisms from the twentieth century, and about an equal number of strict religious-fervor vegetarians who occasionally have the unlovable propensity to express self-righteous disdain for flesh eaters. Scientific research long ago made it clear that vegetarianism, when undertaken thoughtfully and conscientiously, is healthier by any standard and a clear indicator of species advancement. Meat eating is only important in the early stages of evolution; as the human race progresses it only circumscribes lifespan. Small amounts, however, have been found to have no discernible effect on longevity. Ironically, the bad vibes that sometimes intrude upon a vegetarian’s feelings toward flesh eaters have been shown to be worse for that person’s health than eating small amounts of meat.
In fact most people eat little meat, and when they do they use small amounts, mostly as flavoring. Rather, except for those minimal helpings, it’s imbibed more ceremonially, that is, partaken at feasts and gatherings. Here in the mountains, a ritual hunt would take place for that purpose. Humans are relatively few, and their need and desire for red meat is limited. Concurrently, natural landscapes dominate the world. As a result, game is plentiful, so plentiful their infrequent takings could have no measurable impact on the numbers of wild animals. Depending on the occasion, elk, deer or rabbit were hunted. For flesh eaters, fish are also abundant and enjoyed frequently, something on the order of once or twice a week. Fowl, mostly domestic, is eaten more like once or twice a month.
They certainly could gorge themselves on meat if they so desired. In addition to game—free for the effort and easy to access—beef and pork are relatively inexpensive. With the world’s population stabilized at 1.7 billion, and a majority of those people either strict vegetarians or only occasional meat eaters, the impact on Earth’s ecosystems of meat production is not just sustainable but light as a feather. There is no destruction of the landscape from overgrazing—all domestic food animals have ample space to roam in—and no need to allocate vast fertile areas for feed crops. Arable land is abundant and lightly used with prime cropland frequently left fallow for regenerative purposes.
All farming is organic, of course; mechanized, high intensity chemical farming typical of the developed world having gone out nearly a millennium ago with the last drop of commercially produced fossil fuel. In Y2K times it took ten calories of nonrenewable energy to produce one calorie of food. They had giant machines to plant, cultivate and harvest. They used little organic material on the land, and as a consequence, had to depend on large doses of fossil fuel based fertilizers. They devoted vast areas to single crops; monoculture farming that encouraged the proliferation of insect pests that they combated with petrochemical pesticides. They applied herbicides, also mostly petroleum-based, to eliminate competition from other plants and ensure that machines would harvest only the wanted crop. At the height of the petroleum-based economy, food staples were shipped from one end of the earth to the other. As the largesse of abundant, cheap, nonrenewable energy was greedily consumed and depleted, the entire food supply system crashed.
Today what energy we use has to be produced using expensive high-tech solar devices or has to be grown as biofuel. All crops are the product of human effort. Even if fossil-based chemicals were eternally plentiful, even if they weren’t such a disaster for the health of the land and to the people who ingested chemical residues and the resultant cancers, there is simply no need. The land is fertile and highly productive; all organic wastes—human, animal, and vegetable—are composted and put to use enriching the soil. Also, industrial advances that have allowed much to be produced with little human effort have shortened the workweek and given people lots of free time for gardening. A close relationship with the land—the understanding of how plants grow, and the cultivation of one’s sustenance—is considered an important part of life and learning in modern culture; an exalted pursuit of the majority of humanity.
Now that most of the world’s largest cities have shrunk down below 2 million, and are still shrinking, there is always room for urban gardening. With the combination of urban food production and belts of farmland circling every urban area, most population centers have reached 50% food self-sufficiency. Food imports are largely limited to grains, out-of-season fruits, vegetables, and exotics—what would life be like without bananas and mangos?
Nearly all of the Claim’s residents do their share of garden duty, though there are no etched-in-stone rules or strict schedules. About fifteen hours of work per person per week is what it takes to keep the Claim going. Everyone is expected to carry their own weight; however slackers are given a lot of leeway. The needs of the community are easily provided and no one has to toil excessively. So if an individual is going through personal problems that cause them to resist their responsibilities, the others endeavor to restrain any feelings of resentment, understanding that they might well need a little space themselves at critical junctures in their own lives.
Nonetheless, there are limits to the community’s forbearance. If an individual is an incorrigible shirker or just too off-the-wall to get the picture, they might be drummed out of the family’s safety net. There are other not so difficult ways to survive out in the ‘real’ world; expulsion from the commune is not an implacably stone hearted or uncaring action. The Claim has its own surfeit of wacky problems.
Exclaimer family members enjoy crib-to-eulogy security. If they can only make their way to a family home site and carry out their minimal responsibilities, they can be assured of all of life’s basic material needs, and if they so choose, not ever keep a penny on their person. The family as a whole has to deal with a certain amount of money, but the individual has been relieved of the burden.
There is no rent to pay. This particular piece of land was originally a mining claim but it’s surrounded by forest land that, along with 25% of the all the world’s public property, and including ample space in every country, is held in common for all the planet’s citizens. Within that 25% land base certain limited areas have been set aside for indigenous homesteading. In exchange for the privilege of residing on the land, its caretakers are given responsibility for stewardship of it and the immediately surrounding watersheds. When all requirements are fulfilled including continuous habitation for 20 years, they are granted an easement in perpetuity—permanent use of the land.
They are charged with maintaining trails over their stewardship area and are trained and first on the scene in case of forest fire and other emergencies. Generally, they keep an eye out for any problems that might arise. They are not allowed to restrict access through the property; it has to remain open. They can fence off individual garden plots and pastures and residential compounds, but not the property as a whole.
In fact the Claim’s gates are left open for visitors; they are greeted, sized up for potential problems—never know what kind of kook might show up—and asked to respect the privacy of residents. Hiking is a great outdoor pastime, especially in this part of the world, but the Claim is remote and few people without business there wander up the trail. Most who come near simply use the bypass trail around the compound, though in fact visitors, depending on the occasion, are usually quite welcome. Exclaimers are proud of the family’s accomplishments and its history and the great lifestyle communal living affords. As a result, they maintain a hint of the proselytizer’s zeal—absolutely understated of course. Even after a millennium of steady growth of the communal movement, most of the world’s people still live independently as singles or in nuclear families.
Most of the Claim’s buildings are centuries old. Only maintenance is required to keep them habitable, so ongoing costs are minimal. All were built using passive solar designs for heat and hot water. The sun is easily supplemented by wood during times of extreme weather. Electricity is provided by a combination of photovoltaics, micro-hydro projects, water pipe pressure, rooftop water collection systems, and solar chimneys.
Solar electric cells are designed into every south facing roof—each ceramic tile is also a photoelectric cell—and depending on the location they can provide up to half of the building’s energy needs. Micro hydro power is an environmentally benign source of energy: very small generators sufficient to produce a substantial part of a small building’s power needs can be designed into small streams without a discernable trace of ecological harm. Rooftop waterpower is created by directing rainwater onto downspouts that include tiny generators—here in the Northwest a steady, albeit very minimal, source of power during those dark, cool, rainy winter months.
Solar chimneys, also known as solar wind tunnels, are included on almost every rooftop and in stand-alone situations where power is needed separate from buildings. They are simple devices that provide ventilation, air conditioning, and electricity or any combination of the three. It’s basically a vertical tube, open on both ends, painted black on the north side and transparent on the other three. Placed in the sun, the black north face heats the air inside, which then naturally rises and, depending on its length, creates a strong wind current.
To use it for air conditioning only requires placing it on the roof much like a smoke chimney. Hot inside air is sucked out by the force of much hotter air in the chimney; but first, it is channeled through a basement or an underground rock bed before entering the living area. The temperature six feet below ground level in this region is always about 60ºF, and therefore an unlimited supply of cool air is there for the tapping. For electricity, wind generator blades are placed inside the chimney to take advantage of the air movement. On sunny days a typical chimney of the latest designs can produce sufficient electricity to power lights and motors, as well as provide total natural air conditioning for an average house. Of course, electricity is only used when it’s the most efficient and logical means to a task. No longer is it used for space heating or air conditioning, nor to heat water or cook.
Back in Y2K, energy from atomic fission had a short-lived heyday before its dangers were fully realized—shall we say experienced. It took several meltdowns, poisoning millions of people and contaminating large areas of the globe, some still off limits today, before its use was permanently banned. We’re still forced to keep large amounts of radioactive waste under guard twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Science is just now developing processes capable of disarming the harmful radioactivity from that waste, but it’s still in an experimental stage and requires copious amounts of energy so we’ll have to live with the burden for a while longer. Bad enough the Y2K generation nearly destroyed the world; they also left their detritus for dozens of generations to clean up.
People back then, at least those that lived in the privileged, developed part of the world—the world then was divided into two distinct camps, rich and poor—insisted upon, or became accustomed to, absolute comfort and convenience. They denigrated the use of the sun because they couldn’t deal with less than 100% quality and availability. Solar energy is just not like that. It’s a gentle energy that ebbs and flows on an hourly and daily basis. A simple garden hose will make hot water on a sunny summer day, but it’s extremely difficult for the sun to provide 100% of annual hot water needs here in this climate through the cold, dark months.
In most parts of the world, a very simple, inexpensive solar water heater can easily produce a substantial part of a household’s needs. To produce 50%, sometimes as much as 70%, is relatively inexpensive; but as you near 100%, the cost multiplies with every increment. It might cost ten times as much to produce 90% of one’s annual hot water needs from the sun as it costs to produce 70%, since an ever larger system is required to tide one through the cooler, darker times. The final 10%—full-service energy—comes at a cost that is truly prohibitive.
So based on solar energy’s lack of absolute finger tip convenience, and led on by a political leadership beholden to powerful corporations that derived their profits from fossil fuel extraction—which in turn was led on by the former United States, the worst actor in that regard—solar power was only modestly popular. Its value was discounted until the fossil fuel spigot ran dry, or rather became so fantastically expensive it could no longer be used for such mundane work as heating water or toasting bread. Today, every structure or cluster of buildings takes what it can from the sun and natural energies, backing it up with either biomass fuels or wood burned in super clean, efficient stoves when that’s insufficient.
Most structures house a wide range of energy generators. A building might have a passive solar water heater, photovoltaics, and a solar chimney on the roof, a wood stove that produced both heat and electricity inside, and maybe a windmill nearby. If it were in a place like Southeast Alaska, where the sun rarely shines and it consistently rains like hell, it would include a windmill, biomass stove, and tiny downspout hydro generators tapping the flow of rainwater funneling down into the drinking water cisterns.
As in so many of the technological advances of the modern age, the simplest solution has become the norm. So the flywheel, a heavy, perfectly balanced wheel that spins in a vacuum in excess of a hundred thousand revolutions per minute, is standard for electrical storage systems and a fixture in most buildings. As energy is generated in excess of immediate needs, it is used to accelerate the flywheel so that it can be drawn off later.
Buildings are rarely left in the dark. When a system does run down, in spite of its multiple energy sources, or breaks down, everybody just brings out the candles and makes-do; the sun, the wind, the rain are always going to come back.
Heading on towards the courtyard Max saw the shop building on the right. It’s a multipurpose building that includes space for maintaining the Claim’s machinery and facilities, for individuals to pursue their personal projects, and a production facility for crafts that, when sold in the public markets in town, help to pay for the settlement’s costs. It’s set up so people, especially newcomers, can plug in at any time. With food, shelter, energy and a place to do whatever work a person might need to do to fulfill his or her share, Exclaimers are set for life.
In spite of that ultimate security, a member of the family rarely spends his or her whole life within its compounds. In a hundred and fifty or more years of active adult life, Exclaimers are bound to spend many decades outside of the communal homesteads, but they never feel estranged, unless they wish to be, and consider themselves at one with their extended family and are always welcome at its home sites. The same welcome extends to Exclaimers living outside; a family member can, with a high level of confidence, drop in unannounced on Exclaimers living anywhere in the world and expect to be treated as an honored guest.