They’d been restarting the earth for over five years now.
Marie picked up a box of seeds and some jars of bugs and soil bacteria from the dispensary. They gave her hackberry seedlings too, a good, hardy tree. She put all these things in the large panniers on her bike. She was instructed to go north and west, and she went by train to her first stop, where she switched to the bicycle and set off until she found a house beside a dry riverbed. It was probably once a vacation setting. She leaned her bike against the house and went up to the front door and knocked. No one. She went on to the next house and the next, until she found someone at home at last.
“I’m from the Seeding Project,” she said. “Can you take the seedlings for three trees? I’ve got some worms, too.”
An old woman stood in the doorway. “Trees,” she said. “Yes.”
They went around to the back yard, which was dry and had a small section fenced off for a vegetable garden.
“What are you growing?” Marie asked, indicating the plot.
“Beans, sometimes. I get a few tomatoes, too. Not much, it takes a lot of water.”
“Can you handle the trees? They’re hackberry. They can tolerate drought when they’re full grown, but they’ll need water for the first year or so.”
“If they’re close to the house, yes. I get some water from the well, mostly in the morning. It trickles up again overnight. I store some for the plants and I water them in the evening, so it won’t evaporate right away. There were trees when I was younger. It was wonderful to watch them in the storms, you know. And hear them. Yes, I’ll take the trees.”
They chose spots for the trees, dug holes, and planted one seedling for each hole. She helped the woman measure out a gallon of water.
“Trees,” the woman said, and her eyes were bright.
“Someone will be along with groundcover in a few months,” Marie said. “And some beetles after that. Try to keep everything fairly close together—I mean, to form a habitat. But you know that.”
“I do,” she said.
She was invited inside for water and something to eat. A protein stew. And then Marie moved on to find another house.
On the first day, she planted nine trees, and logged the addresses in. The next day was only six trees, because the houses were farther apart. One day she couldn’t find anyone who would agree. One man was moving on; some houses were shut up. She found a heritage farm with two old horses and a dog. The man there pointed to the unworked fields. “What about them?” he asked. “Do you have any corn?”
“Not enough rain for corn,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for five years, and they’ve never had corn.” She saw the look on his face. “I’ll make a note. Maybe the rains will come.”
The owner of the next house was very friendly. “Ah,” she said, “A bee man came by a few months ago. I don’t like bees much, but I took some. They’re living near the house. Not too near,” she said. “And I don’t have to water them or anything.”
“Good. And are you composting?”
“I even have worms,” she replied. “They came out of nowhere. I put scraps in there. They like it. I’m supposed to turn half of them into the soil in a few weeks, then build them up again.”
“I can give you two more worms and maybe some squash seeds.”
She logged all this, and sat down to a welcome meal of water and a sandwich. The bread was dense and therefore government issue. The paste was probably beans and whatever fish was raised on the fish farms. Probably some parsley mixed in, easy to grow. It made her drink more water, however, and she apologized for her thirst.
Marie was tired and sat for a while, looking at the sky. The woman was friendly and sat with her. There were really only two ongoing conversations these days: “When I was a child” and “They say in fifty years.” The woman chose the latter.
“They say in fifty years we might have trees and maybe more crops. I won’t be here, of course. They sprayed a lot when I was a kid, but I remember what it was like.”
They both paused, thinking about it. “I may not be here when the trees grow tall. But someone will see them.” She said it with satisfaction.
They sat companionably together, until it was time for her to leave. Marie stood to go and the woman raised her head up, her face lined with worry and said, “And the predators? Have you heard when they’ll release the predators?”
After five years of releasing things one by one, trying to restore the environment from the bottom up, everyone kept asking about that.
“What have you got there?” a man asked suspiciously, farther along.
“It’s just some cocoons.”
He eyed her warily. “Poisonous?”
“Are any cocoons poisonous?” She was startled.
“Not the cocoons. What comes out.”
“No. It’s just some moths and a few fritillaria. Perfectly harmless.”
There was another cautious silence. “So,” the man said, dropping his voice even lower. How low could it possibly go? “When are they releasing the predators?”
She had learned how to unnerve people by looking at them with absolutely no expression. She’d done that just to do it, for no good purpose. She liked to test things. If there had been snakes in her childhood, she would have prodded them with a stick. She would have whacked a hornet’s next. She would have leapt off cliffs. The closest she could come to danger and adventure was this, sticking cocoons to the undersides of houses, or on bushes someone a year ahead of her had planted.
“The predators,” she said. “They did mention them. Soon, I think.”
“Big cats?” the man whispered.
“Bred to be big.”
She shook her head. “Too hot, they said.”
“I think I heard that. And, I think—hippos? I hear they have a temper. Of course they like the water, which means that you take a chance if you find a river. But that’s the point, isn’t it? To even things out?”
“There’s no river here,” the man said, relieved. “I have a well. And there’s a mud pond when the rains come.”
“Oh well, I’m sure a mud pond would do,” she said evenly.
The first wave of Seeding had been worms and some bacteria and micro-organisms for the soil, and then small bugs and grasses, and clovers and seeds of all kinds and then more bugs and then lizards and birds and small mammals, going up and up. Wild raspberry, different bushes, chinkapin oaks, one wave after another. Squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, rabbits. Up and up. Soon there would be deer and coyotes and some wild ponies on the best plains sites. Eventually, cougars, rattlers, venomous insects, poisonous plants. A fair playing field, was how it was being described. The world had gotten destroyed by the apex animal, and it was because the apex animal had been unchecked. So bring back the checks. Make it fair. No one was very specific about the final predators, the ones who would help to keep the people in check. Lions; wolves; what?
The complaints against the top predators had been loud, but the decision had come at a time when the world’s resources were at the lowest point. People were dying of hunger, of thirst, of disease in a world that had been squeezed too tightly. They would face the predators when they needed to, but even before that, they needed to eat.
Marie found a platform rising from a flat plain. She dropped her bike and walked around it. There were fourteen wooden steps up to the top, no railing on any of it. It wasn’t very old, so it likely wasn’t a hunter’s blind left over from the good times. There were no hunters now, anyway. Guns had been confiscated, poisons and traps as well. Unregenerate hunters had been rounded up and housed somewhere far away. The whole point now was to let everything try to live.
She climbed up and looked around. Mostly dry floodplain, but off to the right were one or two tall trees, and some scrub bushes and tall grasses. The beginning of something, she thought. She’d add some bees and spores before she left. Flies, too.
Far, far off she could see the grasses moving, left to right. From this distance, it was hard to imagine how tall the grasses were, and how big the creature might be. A raccoon? A possum? It made her uneasy, this creature she couldn’t see.
She went to a small farm where she was let in and gave them the seeds and worms and was asked to stay for dinner and then, as the sun set, they offered to put her up for the night, as long as she left first thing in the morning and didn’t shower. “We’re using more water because of you,” the woman said gently. “And we need it for the vegetables and of course for the seeds. And the chickens, too.” Dinner was eggs and some potatoes and some herbs and a mushy protein.
“How are the chickens doing?’
“Better, since they brought those beetles last year. Though the birds disappear sometimes. We don’t know where they go.”
“Do any of them ever come back? You know, just find something interesting while they’re away and then remember home?”
“No. They’re gone. They’re good and gone. We think, sometimes,” and here she hesitated and looked over to her husband. “We think sometimes that it’s the seeders. We know they have to eat and we know some of them are, well . . . shy. Not given much to social situations.”
“No one’s allowed to kill,” Marie said patiently. “That means us, too. Killing harms the earth. Maybe later, when there’s an abundance—if there’s an abundance—maybe then killing animals will be permitted. But slaughter belongs to the past. I can’t imagine anyone doing it.”
“I can’t imagine any other explanation. I mean, they have to eat—you have to eat.”
“No,” Marie said, intent on getting this woman to stop saying this—stop thinking this. “Really, the seeders are fine. They’re tested, you know. To make sure they fit the job.”
The husband snorted. “We had problems with the centipede guy,” her husband said grumpily. “He wanted to come in for a glass of water and we said of course, and well—he unloaded a bunch of centipedes in the house.” He glared at her. “Did he have to do that?”
She had to keep herself from rolling her eyes. “Centipedes walk around. Maybe there’s a hole in the foundation or near a window or somewhere. At any rate, I’m sorry that happened. But it has to go on, you know. We can’t be the only living organisms on this globe.”
“I know,” the man said abruptly. “No need to lecture. Just—whatever you have, keep it outside.” He got up and left the table.
Occasionally, she happened onto a thriving community with wells with good water, with plots of land that grew food and even some cows and chickens and goats that hadn’t been provided by the agency. It was a microgeographical heaven. There was birdsong and there were bugs flying—and fleas and mites and mosquitoes and other things that she had tended to forget about. This is what life was like, both good and bad, beautiful and irritating, all flowing together. No bug sprays. No weed killers, no polluted water. Cow dung for fertilizer. Solar for heat and cooling. This was the way it was supposed to work.
“It’s so wonderful here,” she told the family she was staying with. Farmers and teachers, the two most important professions.
“Don’t tell anyone!” the woman yelped. “We’re supporting ourselves at this size but I think we’d get into trouble if there’s any more people.”
“Of course not,” Marie said, soothing her. “Of course not. We’re not allowed to discuss locations, anyway. You’re safe. I’ll just be here for a few hours and I’ll be on my way.” It was, after all, a kind of rehearsal for restoration. A wonderful, brief dip into the future.
“What are you putting out?” the woman asked.
“Ticks? What, are you crazy? We don’t want ticks.” She stood up and put her arms akimbo. Defiant.
“Oh but ticks have a place,” Marie said. “Birds eat them, you know. Chickens especially. And possum.”
“We don’t want those either!”
“Why not? They eat ticks.”
The woman’s mouth dropped open and then she laughed out loud. “Oh now I see, I can tell you’re messing with me.”
“I am,” Marie said, grinning. “But you’ve got to understand that I have all this time in my head when I’m going from one place to the next. So I think up things to say to people.”
“You shouldn’t,” she was told. “I mean, people get a little off when they’re alone too much.”
Marie shook her head. “People get a little off when the worlds ends. You know?”
The woman sighed heavily. “I know. But no ticks.”
She had been out for two weeks, with some days almost silent, marking deserted houses. In those cases, she walked around them, noting anything growing, pulling leaves if she couldn’t recognize a plant, listening for bird song and frog croaks and any signs of life. She found a house almost filled with spiders. It was not something she was likely to forget. She found spiders repugnant. She dreaded them. She had had to reassure herself that there was little chance that any spider she encountered was dangerous.
She thought that the first lacey sheets were spider webs but in fact it was the daddy log-legs, their legs linked, forming a chain of curtains that rippled without wind. She had yelped. She had run outside and dusted herself off and when that didn’t help, she removed her sweater and shook it out and then took off her shoes and socks and shirt and shorts and shaken everything out until she was satisfied that nothing remained on her.
It had taken a while to regain her confidence but she had continued with her mission, though she didn’t go back inside. She walked around the house and found two wolf spiders, lurking as they usually did. Unpleasant creatures. She had buttoned her blouse up to her neck and continued cautiously. Wolf spiders liked to be near water, so she looked for a pond or a leaky pipe. She could hear water trickling, and traced it to a corner of the house, where either an underground pipe or a small stream pumped up bubbles of water. She planted three trees there herself, looking over her shoulder and around constantly. No one would have to be responsible for watering them. At least finding the spiders had led to something good.
Had the spider man been here or was this some sort of natural selection? She was aware that, in nature as it used to be, sometimes things would explode into excess and sometimes disappear into extinction. This particular extinction had been casually made by human greed. She made a note to ask if someone had deliberately left those spiders. She didn’t actually know which answer would bring more relief.
It was late spring, and heat was coming on so she changed her biking to morning and evening, which is what people did as the temperature rose. She stayed with a horse rescuer, a metal worker, a mechanic, a blacksmith, a baker, some kids who had run away and had found an empty house. Different people. Some of them wanted seeds; some did not. She was not judgmental; the seeds were a commitment and not everyone stayed put.
Once she saw a hawk overhead. She stood there mesmerized. What was the hawk hunting? She thought it might be mice or maybe even rabbits; the rabbits would be quick to multiply. That cheered her up, that things were thriving. At her next house she asked about that, about hawks and rabbit and got a slow nod. “Someone brought rabbits and let them go. Not your people, just some, I guess you’d call them free-lance? There’s that going on. People who saved seeds you know about, but people also had pets. Or places where things held on.”
“That’s great,” she said. “I watched the hawk for a long time; it never dove. But it was looking and I have to think it had a reason for that.”
“Most likely,” the man said. “Most likely.”
It didn’t occur to her until a few days later that a hawk was a predator. Of course it was, she knew that. But she had been thinking that the release of predators meant things that would threaten her, and a hawk did not. And besides, weren’t they supposed to be warned? She thought about that as she wheeled her way down a driveway, left some seeds and then went on. The people there had been nice. They said they’d seen a snake, but they believed it was a ring-necked snake, a small one, maybe a baby—not a litter, what was the word—and what about cats? When would there be cats again?
She would love a cat. After her tour was over, she hoped she would meet a nice man and they would live together and have a cat. Maybe they’d have a kid, too, though she’d have to see what the world was like in a few years.
She was due to check in to a Service cabin, only a few miles away. They were kept stocked, so there’d be food and water and beds and, of course, new seeds to take with her and a counselor to advise her on her next steps. She’d stayed with people the last few nights, but it was hard to use their water and eat their food. Everyone struggled. But the cabin would be well-stocked because it was intermittently used.
She made a quick decision to try to get there before nightfall.
But she timed it wrong; within an hour it was getting dark. She was off the main road, cutting across a dry-grass field to get to the cabin, and she could no longer bike. Pushing the bike was hard work, and slowed her down even more. It had been a long, slow afternoon but then all at once it was racing towards sunset. She consulted her map and her GPS and figured it was another hour or so. She looked up. A few clouds. If the moon came out, that would help. She checked the moon chart. Sickle. Not much light.
It was her own fault, and besides it was warm. If she didn’t make it, she would sleep outside; she’d done it a lot already.
The grasses got taller and thicker and she couldn’t see the end to them yet. She stopped, took out her canteen, took a sip of water and put it away. She took out the knife she carried and used it for a while as a machete—or tried to; it wasn’t very good.
It was tiring. She stopped and thought about staying right where she was. She could easily push a wad of the grasses down and cover them with her space blanket. She had some protein bars and enough water to make them go down easily enough. She kept checking her direction and lighting the way ahead of her, but it was wasting the phone’s battery. Best to stamp down the grasses and spend the night where she was. In the morning she could get to the cabin and have breakfast and a wash.
She made a decent bed and spread out her blanket and was eating her health bar when she saw a light in the distance. She paused in the middle of a chew, thinking. Was this the cabin or was it someone’s home? It was risky to knock on a stranger’s door at night, even though the guns had been confiscated. People were erratic. Just then a shadow passed in front of the light. It seemed bulky and it paused at the window. She imagined him staring out at her. Looking for her.
She listened for the whistle of grasses moving, for the lurch of an animal footstep. What was she expecting? The world was safe. There was nothing alive anymore that could kill her. Except people of course, other people. Was that what she was worrying about? That man whose shadow she’d seen—was he somewhere close by, sniffing the air for her, creeping up on her? She’d been out in the field for a few years and yet she’d never truly felt afraid. Angry at the way the world was; regret for what had been done; hope a few times, hope for what she could accomplish; but never really and truly afraid.
What was she afraid of? She was alone in a field of grasses, with bugs at her face, bugs that she should be grateful about. She looked ahead and saw the light had gone out.
Something flew by her in the night; wings. Were there owls? They had released mice and there were apparently rabbits. And that hawk the other day. There was beginning to be an ecosystem, no matter how limited.
A bug crawled over the hand that held the knife. And then another one. Were they really there or was this just nerves? Now there was something on her neck.
Something was moving in the weeds, moving closer. She listened intently, willing herself not to brush anything off, afraid that any sound she made would draw whatever was out there. Was it an animal or was it the man from the house? Surely it would be a man, not a woman. No woman did that—stalked someone in the dark. Why didn’t women do that? There was something on her face now, crawling around her nose. Now it was moving towards her eyes. She closed her eyes tight.
Something bit her and she drew in her breath despite herself. The rustling paused. She felt a creature waiting out there for her, listening for her. She could feel eyes peering at her in the dark, sniffing for her, even.
She lay there, curled up, all night long. She dozed off for brief minutes, jerking herself awake, and even then not moving at all for fear of making an identifiable sound.
She woke and stood up slowly and looked around. The grasses stretched away. There were the beginnings of small trees, then some bushes and off some distance past them, a cabin. She squinted. She had been much closer than she thought.
Her nerves were on edge and the hairs on her neck prickled. She carried her seeds and some bugs and she moved slowly and carefully, observing everything. There was birdsong; and it stilled when she got near. If it weren’t for the fact that she had been thrown off balance, she would be reveling in this. It was what they were all working for: a bit of the earth that had life in it. She made her way across the field in the daylight, walking slowly and pushing grasses aside. There were more and more insects—she stopped and checked them and saw grasshoppers and beetles. An amazing crop, really. They’d been seeding bugs for years now but up to now she’d only seen a few, and not much variety. This valley showed what could be done and how quickly it could be done. She wondered how many of the people from that village she’d passed came here. She hoped they hadn’t actually found it—or if they had, that they would respect it and allow it to develop.
A man came out of the cabin, saw her, and gave an exaggerated wave. He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted something, but she couldn’t hear it until she got closer. He kept saying “Watch your step!” but he didn’t say why, so she stopped and looked around, expecting rocks or fallen outhouses with nails sticking up. She saw nothing, but she slowed her step and walked forward, casting her eyes about until she came out of the fields into the clearing around the house.
“Snakes,” he said in explanation.
“Ring-necks?” she asked. “Garden snakes?”
He laughed. “That’s a good attitude,” he answered, which puzzled her even more.
“I was expecting you last night,” he said. “Run into trouble?” He led her into the cabin, which had three other Seeders in it, Malcolm, Zach, and Jenny. Seeders loved to meet each other, so they asked where she’d been, what she’d seen, what she’d heard, and she asked back.
Alex was the outpost leader, a bald black man around 50. He waited patiently for all of them to finish and settle down.
“Well, you’re a day late, but that’s all right,” he told her. “You’re actually down for a two-day break—all of you are—so there’s time to catch your breath before you head on out again. Actually, I’ll be heading out with you. This particular area is considered far enough advanced that we can let it go for a year and then come back and see results. We’ll switch to the barer areas.” He grinned. “You say that: barer areas. It’s hard.” They laughed genially.
He sort of looked away and then looked back. ”I’m curious what you’ve all been hearing from people, so let’s take a little time to go over what they’ve said, and also let’s discuss what communities there are and where they are and what their water situation is, for instance. Just a general sense of what’s out there now. You’ll be filing with the office if you haven’t already, but I’d like to get us all to look at the bigger picture right now.”
He nodded and motioned to them one by one. She was interested in their stories. There were areas with nothing out there—abandoned houses, dried-up wells, that sort of thing. But there was also a loose wide circle of places where people were resettling and bringing in a cow here, a goat there, even two horses. People, generally, who had lived there before and kept an eye out. Who had hoarded the few animals they had left and the seeds they had gathered. The animals were of course precious because they produced good fertilizer, if there was enough to feed them. They had resettled a year or two earlier, from all accounts, and some people now had babies. They were small communities, but they radiated hope. The seeders talked about what life had been like before it began to slip away; this was what they’d been working towards. They nodded to each other, their eyes shining. They just handed it around, their visions of a renewed world, a green world.
Alex encouraged them. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Like life used to be? Yes? I remember it, myself, I grew up in the country and then we moved to the suburbs. Never having to think about anything, really. Food and safety and water, heat when you needed it, a/c when you needed it. Go to a store and get what you want. Get in a car and go where you want. Good days, right?”
They got still, the good memories slipping from them. They knew where he was going.
“Of course, everything pretty much died to give us that. The wilderness, the prairies, the forests, the wild animals. Extending our own secure zones by destroying theirs. Doesn’t seem right? It wasn’t right. So we can’t reproduce that. We have to be careful that we get the balance right.”
“It’s time?” Zach asked softly.
“It’s time,” Alex said. He looked behind them, at the distribution boxes. They all turned and looked at them, shifting slightly, their shoulders tightening.
She hadn’t thought it would be this soon. Well, none of them had. This part had been in the future—she thought long ahead in the future, nothing to worry about now.
But there had been signs, of course. Those movements in the grasses—there was animal life. Those thriving homes, with children. That sudden fear last night was not a vestigial fear; it was the animal in her acknowledging that there was a threat roaming, moving, reaching out to her.
“What is it?” she asked. “What are we releasing?”
“The middle. Not the big things yet. Venomous snakes and spiders. African bees. Mosquitoes and ticks with diseases. We’ve already got a few souls out releasing the smaller cats—puma; civet. It’s just the beginning, really. I don’t think any of us will die from it.” He looked at them. “You knew it was coming.”
They nodded and murmured agreeably. They were trying to look at it as a good thing. But there was a part of them that fought it.
“We can’t make the same mistakes,” Jenny whispered. “We have to make sure that there are constraints on us. We have to make sure we’re actually part of the cycle of nature. We moved out of that a while ago.”
“We know,” Malcolm said stiffly.
Zach looked a little happy about it; he had a small smile. “I like snakes,” he said. “I’ll take them.”
She looked around at them. Eager or not, they had a look in their eyes that they were committed to this, and she supposed she had the same look. It was calculating. It said, “At least I’ll know, and I can be careful. At least I’ll know.”
She had to orient her emotions, for a moment. She knew the others felt the way she had up until now—that the predators were the future, not the present. That they could be brave in their resolve for the future, but that bravery wouldn’t be tested. Because the world, half destroyed as it was, was also fairly safe for humans as far as immediate threats were concerned. There was nothing to harm her. Yes—drought was a persistent problem, and the results of drought and the lack of animals and insects and birds were the results of a decline in the productivity of the earth, but she personally had access to food and water. She could think about danger and threat in an abstract way. This, however, was immediate and personal and not abstract.
Zach was still cheerful, but the other two were quiet and were probably lost, as she was, in thinking about the days ahead. Up until now they had been restoring what was essentially benevolent, the little things that parsed the earth. Now they were being turned into the first wave of checks. They were the beginning of a leveling.
“Well, that’s it,” Alex said. “We’ll have a relaxing evening and in the morning you’ll be off. You’ll get the usual map with directions, and if you want to choose a box rather than have it assigned to you, go right ahead. I know you have mixed emotions—you’re not the first group going out with these. I can tell you that this step is truly and remarkably necessary. We’ll be going out with the big cats and the bears and stuff pretty soon, and there will be alligators and a few non-native species with a nasty temper that will thrive in this climate. It’s harsh. The world was harsh, always, but we were harsher. It’s time to accept the fact that we are temporary, each individual, but we have to maintain the longevity of species. Not just our species. We’re a niche. We shouldn’t be making the decisions because we’ll always make the decision that benefits us. We’re too selfish to remain unchecked.”
She spent the night thinking about it. They had dinner and there was beer and everyone got a little too loud with wary eyes shifting left and right. These were people who had dedicated years of their lives to the restoration. They had understood it; they had sworn to uphold it. but now it was time to prove it.
They got quieter as the night wore on and drifted off silently to their beds. They all rose early and stood in front of Alex, in the room with the boxes.
“Anyone want a particular box?” Alex asked. “Besides the snakes?” He handed Zach that one.
Then there was silence. They all hesitated. Choice seemed somehow to suggest culpability. But she ran though her own thoughts, her own objectives, her own decisions to save the earth, no matter what. She remembered the curtain of spiders, and how awful she had felt—a terrible, consuming, destroying human reaction. She hated siders and she might as well admit it. And she should also admit that destroying what you hated was how they’d all gotten into this mess. She should turn her fears into dedication, maybe. She should really take her chances, and not rely on staying safe.
“I’ll take the spiders,” she sighed and stepped forward.
He nodded and gave them to her. She could hear faint skitterings in the box. There were air-holes, and she thought she saw a hairy black leg stick through a hole briefly and then subside. She took a long breath and made her way out the door.
Her heart skittered too, but her hold was firm.