A Kinder and More Caring Future?

I’m on the side of the road with Bun Lai, the chef at Miya’s Sushi in New Haven, Connecticut, and he’s telling me how to eat knotweed, an invasive species. It’s a chilly day turning into a warm day, and around town, it being May, there’s talk about whether the weather is acting like May or not.

We still have our seasons here in southern Connecticut. Winter is cold and wet, and spring is warmer and wet. Summer is hot and dry, and fall is cooler and dry. But in the past fifteen years, we’ve had stretches of summer during the winter, and stretches of winter in the spring and fall, and stretches of spring all summer. We’ve had two hundred-year hurricanes, Irene and Sandy, within a couple years of each other. The seasons don’t cooperate like they used to, and people talk about how weird that is, but also that maybe we can start talking about how weird is the new normal. And then there are the people annoyed by the phrase the new normal, because the whole idea is that there isn’t going to be a normal anymore.

“You know climate change is coming,” Lai says. “What are you going to do about it?”

This is the same man who, earlier that morning, answered his door by telling me I was there on the wrong day, that I had to come back next week. But this time he isn’t kidding.

By running his kitchen on the concerns of adventurous eating, nutrition, and environmental sustainability, Bun Lai has become one of New Haven’s culinary treasures. He jokes that he’s probably lost more customers just from people looking at the menu than any other restaurant he can think of, but the truth is that the creativity he pours into the food at Miya’s has won him far more fans than he’s lost. Miya’s is pretty much always crowded. There are people who drop $89 for a full tour of the menu and people who squeak in after 10 o’clock for the late-night specials, $6 for a plate of sushi or a hefty bowl of ramen. They come because at Miya’s you can eat things you can’t eat anywhere else. There’s a sushi roll called Tyger Tyger that combines yellowfin tuna, goat cheese, apricots, avocado, pickled radish, and berbere spices. Another involves albacore tuna, avocado, asparagus, pickled radish, cayenne pepper, roasted sesame, and anise. The roll itself is crispy wild salmon skin. A third called Bone Thugs-N-Broccoli has salmon bones—yes, bones—and broccoli stems. If the idea of taking out a couple invasive specimens appeals to you, then you can eat knotweed pickled in kimchee and fried in garbanzo-bean batter, or sushi with Asian shore crab, or carp sashimi topped with citrus tamari sauce, green onions, and roasted black soldier fly larvae. He calls feral pig “one of the top ten most destructive species in America, and delicious.” It’s thanks to Lai that I’ve eaten raw venison—a response to deer overpopulation—and sauce distilled from the parts of the fish that he can’t use in sushi. It’s because of him that I now eat some of the plants that grow in my yard that people consider weeds, like dandelion greens, wild onions and garlic mustard, and they are all very tasty.

Why does Lai make food like this? Here’s how he puts it in the menu:


In the year 2150, people will be eating in a way that is healthier not only for their bodies but also for our whole planet. People will be eating fewer animals, since they will have learned that a plant-based diet is the healthiest way to eat; they will hunt and farm animals in a way that is more humane. At Miya’s, you will experience a kinder and more caring future, where sushi has evolved to become a way of eating that honors and celebrates all life on Earth.


Not far away, in another part of the menu, is a section of sushi for dogs. The heading for this part of the menu is Doggy Style. This is important. Lai’s looking toward the future, wringing his flavors from ideas about scarcity and sustainability. He pays attention to where his food comes from. Some of it he forages himself, from the shoreline, from the woods, from the pasture near his house. He figures out how to use what he gathers to make things that are delicious in unusual ways. And he does it with a keen sense of humor.

There’s a message in that. As I write this, Houston and the west coast of Florida are still figuring out how bad the damage is from hurricanes Harvey and Irma. The news outlets are using words like “hell” and “uninhabitable” to describe the devastation wrought in the Caribbean. Hurricane Maria has destroyed Puerto Rico. There are people studying how water shortages are fueling wars in Africa and the Middle East, people using the phrase “climate change refugees” to talk about the displacement of millions of people over the next few decades from Bangladesh alone.

We can stand on the coastline and brace ourselves. We can wring our hands and say there’s nothing we can do. We can roll up our sleeves and get to work, chasing one calamity after the other and helping everyone we can. Lai’s food suggests still another path. It suggests that once we have a chance to breathe, maybe we can start looking further ahead. If we’re creative and adaptable, the story of dealing with climate change doesn’t have to be just a litany of tragedies. It can be a story of ingenuity, of accepting change, of grieving, understanding and moving on. Maybe even with a sense of humor.

But Miya’s is just a proof of concept. As Lai himself has said, we can’t feed millions of climate change refugees on $89 sushi platters, or even $6 bowls of ramen. Can the ideas driving Lai’s food be scaled up? Can we change the way we eat and save ourselves? What might that future look like?

The Milford Laboratory, which is part of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, is nestled in a cove just down the coast of the Long Island Sound from New Haven. It got its start in 1919 with a single researcher, and was the first lab to figure out how to grow oysters in captivity. The facility now has a staff of 32, counting scientists, technicians, administrators, and maintenance, and it continues to do research, learning more about how to cultivate fish and shellfish for food.

I got the idea to bug Gary Wikfors, the chief of the lab’s aquaculture sustainability branch and its lab director, about Miya’s and its vision for the future because of an idle comment he dropped on social media about how Miya’s does “everything right” from a sustainability perspective, and because I happen to know him socially as a musician. He plays multiple instruments with great skill, and has been ascending the steep learning curve associated with playing a Swedish instrument called the nyckelharpa. The name translates to “key harp”, and it’s pretty much, as the name implies, a horde of strings that you play using rows of keys and a short bow. Once you get good at it, the tone it produces, like a viola’s eerie cousin, is worth it. But it’s as hard as it sounds to learn, and it tells you a lot about Wikfors that after years of mastering other instruments, the nyckelharpa still calls to him, and he has answered.

Wikfors told me early in my visit to the lab that Lai had visited five times, peppering him with questions about aquaculture. “He wanted to be convinced that this is a sustainable approach,” Wikfors said.

Wikfors also practices fika—the Swedish coffee break, which in the lab means making coffee in one of the sinks and gathering his colleagues around. Surrounded by scientists from all over the world, I was about to ask them, to put it bluntly, whether we could save everyone on the planet by feeding them carp sashimi.

I braced myself to be shut down. It occurred to me that I should have done a lot more homework, that I should have brought a scientist with me to ask better questions. I was expecting them to tell me that Lai’s ideas might be a great idea for a cutting-edge restaurant, but they were simply not practical at a large scale.

Was large-scale aquaculture, enough to feed millions of people, possible? What might we grow? And how might we make that sustainable? Rather than pointing out the problems as insurmountable, the staff of Milford Labs brimmed with solutions. Wikfors explained that creating sustainable aquaculture was about changing tastes as well as developing technology. A lot of Americans in particular have a taste for the predators near the top of the food chain. From a sustainability perspective, that was a little crazy, because predators use way more resources than their prey. “We don’t eat a Bengal tiger, but we do eat haddock, which is the equivalent,” Wikfors said. On the other hand, “we can be very proud of shellfish, because they’re vegetarians.”

Here the scientists all began talking at once. We didn’t need to keep eating shrimp from Asia; we could eat things that grow much closer to home. And we could each a much wider assortment of animals. In Asia, plenty of people eat jellyfish (which eat plankton) and sea cucumbers (which are bottom feeders). Introducing them to the United States might just be a matter of presentation (which made me think of Bun Lai). Same went for fish that people catch all the time and don’t normally think to eat, like sea robins, another bottom feeder. The tail might make for good eating; one could imagine the meat being very tender. Our grandparents and great-grandparents who lived near the shore would have eaten slipper shell, a type of sea snail. “Out of necessity comes diversity,” said microbiologist Barry Smith. We hadn’t even touched on aquatic plants.

Moreover, as Wikfors explained, China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam already “are doing aquaculture on scales many, many times larger that we do it, so it’s in our future, especially as we move offshore.” Later in the day Wikfors would show me what that meant. An offshore shellfish farm from the surface might not look much more like rows of buoys floating on open water. But below the surface would float lines coated with shellfish, growing and ready to be harvested, enough to feed much more than one restaurant’s eager customers. Reaching that future would involve some changes in how we use the ocean, tipping the balance away from recreation and toward farming. A tough sell, but not impossible. Korea, Wikfors said, was “miles ahead of us in terms of zoning.” He told me about standing on a peninsula and seeing farms stretching out to both sides of him, all in active production. “The amount of food that comes out of a small country is astounding because they prioritize it,” he said. And because all those farms were offshore, you could still go to the beach.

My brain swam with ideas. “You all sound a lot more optimistic than I expected,” I told them.

“Do we have any choice?” Wikfors said.

Hurricane Irene was technically a tropical storm by the time it hit New Haven in 2011, but it was enough. Steph and Leo—my wife and son—and I were visiting my parents in upstate New York that weekend. We were glad to be out of harm’s way, and I was glad to be visiting my parents, which I hadn’t done enough of, even before my dad had his cardiac arrest.

Then Steph, who’s a pediatrician, was told she had to be back in town for the storm. We didn’t want to go back. Steph resisted the order but was overruled. So we cut our trip short, packed our things, and headed out, threading through the Catskills, listening to the news on the radio when we got good reception.

Crossing the Hudson River on the Beacon-Newburgh Bridge, we saw a wall of clouds to the south and east, the first fingers of the storm. The thought occurred to me that if the storm moved in fast enough, we could come home to find a tree through our house. It was all too easy to imagine, the trunk of a giant old oak splitting our home in half, the branches tangling in the shattered rafters, shingles sprinkled like confetti. I thought of sifting through the wreckage. I knew there was no way to really prepare myself for that kind of thing. But then I shot a glance around the car. Steph in the passenger seat. My son Leo in the back. We had a few days of clothes. We had our wallets, our phones. I even had a couple instruments with me, because I’d played a gig in my hometown with an old friend, and I’d played for my family.

I’m all right, I thought. I have what I need. I convinced myself that I meant it.

The news told us all to stay inside, so we did. At first Irene was just a rainstorm, then an intense rainstorm. Then the wind picked up. It only reached 50 miles an hour. Like I said, it was a tropical storm, not a hurricane, but it was enough. The first blast of wind came at night, and the sounds of tree limbs breaking woke me up. I ran to the window and saw that one of the big, old oak trees in a neighbor’s yard was now a different shape, a triangular crown, missing its other half. For several hours of a warm fall day, I watched as the young trees we’d planted in our yard a few years ago, which were already about as tall as the house, bent over until their tops were parallel with the ground. The power flickered out and came back on. I sat on the porch and watched the much older trees thrash around, moaning and howling, moving much more than I thought big trees like that could move.

When the storm passed and the sun came out, we walked around the neighborhood. There were tree limbs down everywhere, power lines down, a couple houses cut in half. Much of the greater New Haven area lost power. The coastal parts of town flooded. For a little while, parts of Morris Cove, a neighborhood that juts out into the Sound, were cut off from the mainland. A couple houses were dragged into the water. Several months later, they hadn’t been rebuilt.

I don’t know why we still had power. Most of the neighborhood didn’t. Which meant that in the evening around dinnertime, our friends in the neighborhood congregated at our place with all the food they had that was going to go bad, and it was our job to try to figure out how to use it. Everyone was ready to celebrate. Everyone was really hungry. I was chopping vegetables as fast as I could, but knew dinner was an hour away. To cut the edge off our appetites, I pulled eggplant cutlets I’d made a couple days ago out of the refrigerator and made them into little stacks of five. I chopped up tomatoes, basil, and garlic someone had brought, sprinkled them with cheese someone else had brought, and stuck them in the toaster oven for a couple minutes. I threw them on the kitchen table and told everyone to have a snack, and then turned back to making dinner. Mmmm, I heard behind me. Mmmm, this is delicious. I turned around. The eggplant was gone.

“You have to make this again sometime,” Steph said.

We do now, a couple times every summer. We call it Eggplant Irene. I don’t even remember what else I made that day. But we eat it and we talk about the storm. Leo, who has now been through Irene and Sandy and remembers the town mostly without power for a week twice, people coming to our house to store food, to charge their phones, to use the shower, thinks of these 100-year storms as merely unusual. And I try to hold on to that small revelation in the car crossing the Hudson River, that as long as I have my family and a couple changes of clothes, and maybe a musical instrument, I really do have everything I need.

To me, Irene was the future calling. I look at the model projections of rising seas—or, for that matter, big storm surges—and mentally redraw the map. Sometimes the future looks a little like the past. The train station used to be on the coast before a huge swath of land was created in the 1940s and 1950s, filling in part of the mouth of the harbor to build the intersection of I-91 and I-95. If the Big One hit the city, the station could be on the coast again.

But some parts of the future imagine a whole new coastline. The islands off the coast now could be underwater. Morris Cove could become a new set of islands. Parts of Fair Haven, a vibrant Latino neighborhood, could be submerged. The marsh of the Quinnipiac River could become open water. Fingers of ocean could reach into the city as far as a couple miles.

There’s a park in Fair Haven on a spur of land that’s like the uvula in the mouth of New Haven Harbor. The Quinnipiac River and the Mill River, which have been weaving their way for miles through the giant swamp known as Connecticut, come together at last. To the right are the tall buildings in New Haven’s downtown, and to the left, a cluster of white petroleum storage tanks. The Q Bridge that carries I-95 along the shore arcs over the water and leaps into the tangle of overpasses that make up the junction with I-91 and the exits to the city. On evenings with good weather there are soccer and basketball games on the fields and courts, and the road along the side is lined with food trucks selling tortas, older men playing dominoes in the slanting light, families in plastic lawn chairs with tinny radios tuned to reggaeton.

Ever since Irene, I go to that park and imagine the hurricane coming in and all the land around me flooding. The abandoned power station becomes a lighthouse. The oil tanks spring leaks. If the wind and waves are strong enough, maybe they manage to take out a piece of I-95. It sounds dramatic, but it wouldn’t have to be much of a piece to sever the connection. To cut off New York from Boston. To suddenly make New Haven harder to get to, harder to leave. All the food we get would have to come from the farms to the north of the city, or from the ocean to the south of it. But maybe it can.

Let’s say the biggest storm anyone’s ever seen knifes up from the south and cuts a path of destruction across Long Island before smashing into the harbor. The bridge that took a generation to build wobbles on its pylons and collapses into the water. The remains look like the ends of bones that have been snapped in half. The wind turbine set up near the bridge is twisted until it looks like a propeller from an airplane crash. The roads in and out of town are washed out, strewn with trees. And the coast is a whole new shape. There’s no arguing with it, no way to put everything back the way it was. We can only adapt.

Now fast forward six months, a year, three years. Say we decide that rebuilding the highway is too costly. Fast forward another twenty years. Say we decide to move farther inland. Say we decide to take things a little slower. We don’t look as far afield for things to eat. We cherish tomatoes and strawberries in the summer and then can and freeze them once the power’s back on, and we eat root vegetables in the winter, that and the meat from the fat animals we slaughter. And we start eating more from the sea—not more in volume, but variety, whatever we happen to find. We figure out what we can eat, and then figure out how to make it taste delicious. We pull flavor from unlikely places—from weeds, from fungus, from animal parts we used to throw away—and then it just becomes the way we make food. And maybe in the summer, we go back to the park, now in a boat because the park is under water. We jump in up to our waists and have a water fight. We make stupid jokes about crabs, because, come on, crabs. Then we we pluck sea robins and weeds from the shallows and turn them into soup that we spice with dried chiles. So many people died in the storm, but we survived, and we celebrate that. It was a catastrophe, but we’re still here.

We can’t leave town because the roads are blocked and the power keeps going out. So we visit each other. We build fires inside in the winter and pack the house with people to stay warm. In the summer it’s too hot to be inside, so we all go out. We go downtown where the streets are lined with candles and lights hooked up to generators, and there are parties along the curb. The musicians in town—that’s me—throw together bands that play on the sidewalk with battery-powered amplifiers, and we eat the ice cream before it melts, drink the beer before it gets warm. It takes longer to get home because it’s hard to see where we’re going. But we get there, and sleep in a star-strewn darkness we can’t imagine when the streetlights are on.

In a very small way, it’s already happening. It already has happened.

Between New Haven and Milford Labs, there’s a state park called Silver Sands. It was created in 1955 after Hurricane Diane killed 184 people across eight states from North Carolina through Connecticut. In Milford, the storm destroyed 75 houses along the coast. Instead of rebuilding, in the end the state acquired more than 300 parcels of land, and in 1960 it opened as a park. The original idea was to fill in the marsh between the dunes and the mainland. The idea now is to leave the marsh and the dunes be.

I went to Silver Sands with my parents, Steph, and Leo on Independence Day weekend. We drove down the skinny beach roads to the long line of houses packed along the coast, some of them up on stilts, the ocean on one side, the marsh on the other. We parked the car and ate at a little Greek joint, then walked to the end of the road where the houses stopped and the park began. The lifeguard was off duty, but it was a hot evening and the beach was still crowded. A family under a pop-up tent spoke in soft Spanish and cooked on a little portable grill perched on a wooden picnic table. Another family lounged with a tinny radio playing reggae. Three young men were practicing basketball passes on the beach. It was high tide and the land bridge to Charles Island, where they say the pirate Captain Kidd might have buried treasure before he was caught and executed, was underwater, but people were still walking out on it, thigh-deep with fishing rods. A man in bicycle shorts prodded a dead horseshoe crab, a shirtless surfer walked on the rocks, and kids scrambled out along the jetty. A mother and daughter in matching red, white, and blue flag-print dresses were getting their picture taken at the edge of the marsh.

We walked along the boardwalk in our street clothes, over the grass and the water still coming in, where girls looked for shells in the sand. The sun was turning the air orange, and a thousand voices called to each other across the sound of the surf. It had been over six months since my dad had survived his a sudden cardiac arrest, and you never would have known it happened. My mom asked Steph, Leo, and me to stop for a picture, and my son climbed up my side and pretended he was about to bite me. If this was what living with the change could look like, then maybe we didn’t need to be so afraid after all. The ocean that flooded us could feed us, too.



First, we made sure the world was devoid of sentient inhabitants.

Its turquoise skies grew greener (we thought) as summer waned.

On the wine-dark sand we drew diagrams and planted pennants:

a cultural center here, a spa or hotel there, on an imaginary beach.

At least one of the suns was always rising, and the light perfect

for filming, as if the planet were a vast, floodlit stage. Shadows

radiated and swung like compass needles in a geometer’s dream.

Our shielded clothing and the protective coatings on excavators,

fabricators, and constructors faded quickly under the incessant

illumination. No one could agree on what the colors had become,

but we tried to name the new shades anyway: peripatetic, swelter,

welkin, shudder, grudge. All our off-world concepts lost relevance—

something about the fluctuating solar spectra. Estimated project

completion was indefinitely postponed.


The Alice Grey

The spire grew from a tight mesh pushing out of the deep cracks of the street, converging into a pillar that loomed above the squat buildings, clipping one at the side. Alice circled high over the rising structure and the abandoned remnants of Krakow while her ship spit out the usual scans with a faint hum and stutter. This nanotech Grey was polite for such a big one, it didn’t extend defensive barbs into the air and showed no obvious toxicity.

The other collectors preferred passive flare-ups like this, but Alice found it hard to destroy something that didn’t fight back. Jake never seemed to care, but she thought a passive collection skirted the edge of cowardice.

“No use waiting then, Old Pig,” Alice whispered to her ship.

Alice had Old Pig throw out one of its sample collection probes, a pointless ritual to confirm the nanite aggregate. But protocol was protocol, and part of the reason the Grey kept coming back.

The probe returned as the spire sealed the small dimple created by its offending distant cousin. Old Pig opened the probe’s collection pouch and spilled the twitching machinery into his quarantine chamber. Extending the remotely controlled robotic arms and manifold tools, Alice dove into the sagging handful. Such a small sample rarely revealed anything important, but this was one of the best parts of the job, to see the Grey’s newest evolutions in such detail. This first look was the only reason Alice didn’t skip the initial probing entirely.

The sample’s outer tessellating microstructure folded into layers of protecting tightness. Each surrounding sheet grew into shapes evolved from the simple patterns at their central sheet, convolving into a blossom of wild elegance. Tough skin growing into sensitive flesh.

The Grey often came up with unusual strategies among its twisting symmetries and convoluted molecular designs. She had seen so much over the years, but every time it was new and terrifying. Certainly useful to the few who bothered studying the Grey anymore. Occasionally even profitable, when she managed to squirrel away something novel for her Duster friends.

A Grey as complicated as the spire below would usually be much smaller, easy to corral into the ship’s small autoclave until Alice could haul it back to the Black Drop. But she doubted the autoclave’s pressurization assault would work even if she could pack it all in. This sort of Grey would just hyperevolve its way out. She had once nearly lost her ship when a much simpler Grey cluster managed to escape and veer Old Pig into an evacuated building.

Time for Protocol again, but this time a sensible one, land and extend the secondary sensors. Call for backup.

Old Pig yawned in relief as the burdens of flight slacked around him, turbines wheezing still and landing gear moaning.

“Central, I have a T-40 here. Request reinforcement.” Audio only, hoping Fabrizio wouldn’t open the visual.

“Sorry, Alice.” No such luck, there he was on the screen, grinning and vacant. “Everybody’s out, even the off-duty. Lots of big ones popping up all over.”

“Sir, I strongly suggest diverting to this location. My target exhibits advanced tertiary structure and exponential repair. Sending preliminary data over now.”

There was a pause in his crass attempts at a flirty smile as he read the report. Then he bit into his thumbnail. “Um,” he finally replied to fill the awkward pause. “I can send you Takashi and Krin in about an hour.”

“Their ships are not equipped for this category, sir. I need two other class threes, minimal.”

“Let me get back to you.” Of course, she thought, you go find somebody else to tell you what to do.

Not wanting to wait, she began the next data collection phase, reaching out to the growing spire with an uncoiling sensory proboscis. Slow and unthreatening, Old Pig’s snorting and snuffling nose touched the spire’s surface, then burrowed in when he encountered no adaptive resistance.

That was how you dealt with the advanced nanites, careful and deliberate. The old self-replicating identicals would just burn themselves out when they ran out of local resources. Sometimes they even encountered something that could wipe their whole population with surprising ease. Once, in Venezuela, she’d watched beetles by the thousands gorging on pink nanite nets that stretched over a full square mile of farmland.

“Unit 14, standby for emergency communication.” Startled, Alice adjusted the volume of the UN direct com channel. It was only the third time it had been used since she got Old Pig, and this didn’t seem to be just another transmission test.

“This is Commander Sherman of the United Nations Nanomachine Defense Commission. Multiple nanite flare-ups have been detected across the globe, many of similar composition. This appears to be a coordinated assault. Eliminate your assigned target at all cost. Reinforcement will be sent as resources become available. Repeat, eliminate target at all cost.”

So it was really starting, just like Jake had predicted. Alice sat back and tried to take in the spire, reach across the gap of chemical incompatibility, timeline, and scale. Plunge into the heart of the living machine, if only to ask what it was doing, what it wanted.

In the beginning, it was easy enough to toss Grey into the Black like so much inconvenient garbage. The Grey would clump and fray as they tumbled down before reaching the event horizon, their final throes fixed in timelessness.

The varied fireworks of the dying Grey became something of a show. People brought their children to crowd the stadium that was built below the miniature black hole. They sold hot dogs and booked popular concerts. It brought in some tidy revenue for the Commission and was great at advertising the need to keep funding nanite cleanup.

A report lit up from a holodisplay, a tumbling bauble of jagged edges over splitting bulges. It was a cross-sectional representation of the spire, its layers and inner folds. The bulky lower tiers were packed high-energy polymers, followed by skeletal struts thinning into to bewildering complexity at the top. Not just structure: the telltale whispers of function.

Alice began the analysis, extrapolating expansion rates, available intermolecular free energy and evolution probabilities. These used to be enough, but now they were often wrong, sometimes dangerously so. This time they made no sense at all. This spire shouldn’t be growing so quickly. At its current size it actually had a negative free energy score and should have collapsed by now.

Well, it was time to earn her pay.

“Old Pig, load the Thierry-Malt function.”

Alice struggled with the formatting errors that often sprang up with new functions like this, but soon enough she worked out the kinks. The program churned to detect the free energy of each compartment subsection at the molecular level, the streaming pentabytes straining Old Pig’s processors.

What would this Grey burn into when thrown into the Black? Perhaps it would flash with rainbow colors and abstract shapes to woo the crowd, or maybe leer down with blood-shot eyes extending from massive sheets of billowing flesh, arms and legs and mouths and sex, almost human.

Alice preferred the latter, the deathknell that thinned the crowds as people realized they were watching an execution. Only the hardcore Dusters watched anymore, but they knew from the beginning what they were seeing, didn’t need for it to be spelled out with the grotesque.

Fabrizio beeped at the com. Alice ignored it, hoping he would just give up, but it came up again, then again. She finally opened the damn channel.

“Alice, this operation is getting too hot! They are popping up all over, there’s even talk of Q-strikes if we can’t contain them all. Please, if you can’t get rid of yours just get out of there, I’ll cover for you, just get out!”

“Thank you for your concern, sir.”

Then he just stared, his mouth partially open as if there was something really important he wanted to say but couldn’t quite find the words. He looked like a lost puppy.

“I have to go, sir.” She shut off the channel.

Always with the overreaction. The Grey showed up as something big and scary and it suddenly became a problem. People so easily forgot that nanites filled the air and seeped into the earth. Even in the fulldome cities, where nanite surveillance was maximally paranoid, every breath of air had at least a few hundred, if not thousands, of stray nanomachines. Remnants of true Grey dead-ended into particulate oblivion, sure. But still there.

Old Pig’s sensory extensions deep within the spire started to report large-scale shifts in isomerization and structural integrity. The gap between the high-energy compounds at the base and the complexity hubs above started to increase, filling with a tight honeycomb structure.

This was developing faster than she expected. Soon enough, nothing Old Pig had would touch it. Alice leaned forward and turned on the torches, but they didn’t even singe the outer shell. A burst of liquid nitrogen also had no effect, just slid across the surface and pooled into a slowly sublimating puddle on the cracked street. The sensory module died as the spire snapped against the umbilical wire connecting it to Old Pig, sealing the module within.

Alice ran through a few calculations and hedged guesses, then struck with a combination of acids and other caustic chemicals, again to no effect. She tried shooting the spire for good measure, Pig’s Gatling snout blazing red and yellow as it fired explosive rounds. The first barrage looked like it caused some damage, but the second barely scratched the surface.

The next option would be the PQB cannon. Alice wired Command for permission, but found it was pre-approved. She put some distance between Old Pig and the spire and unfurled the cannon from Pig’s underbelly. An invisible high-energy beam burst from it, tearing at the air, the ensuring thunder toppling the nearby three blocks of the dead city.

The spire listed a bit to the side as the building it rested on fell, but righted itself, the soft, melting surface that had taken the brunt of the blast clawing back up. Old Pig had enough charge to fire a second blast, but Alice decided to save the fuel.

Just last year, a routine geological survey broke into a massive cavern housing a Grey construct of over fifty metric tons. It fed off the magma flowing near its undulating edges, the fingers it dipped into the molten rock fine and glassy. It was written off as a fluke, but Alice knew better; the Grey probably extended into the very planet’s core. Imagining worlds upon worlds below teeming with Grey made her feel like a simple woodland animal staring at a busy campfire from the distance, the bustle of artificial tools and light incomprehensible yet strangely alluring.

Well, the UN did say at any cost. Alice touched the small metal circle at the side of her neck and called Smitha. Good old Silver, as she liked to be called now.

“Well, isn’t this a pleasure! Always glad to see you, my dear.”

“Hello, Silver, are you out?”

“Of course! Isn’t all this activity just wonderful? I’m in North Africa collecting an entirely unmolested quad growth, a neat little cube, harder than our best boson-tethered lattice.”

“I have something better here for you, highest complexity. If you help me take it out you can have the remains.”

“Now, now, are you finally switching sides? No longer Uncle’s nice little girl?”

“I have full leeway on this assignment. They’re a bit desperate.”

“I can imagine, I’ll break atmosphere and be at your position in a few minutes. Hold on tight!”

“Will do. I’m sending you the data.”


Together, they fired and cut. The unpainted metal bulk of Old Pig appeared crude beside Smitha’s sleek, jet-black Sagittarius. It was the newest model reentry collection and disposal craft, the kind the UN commission couldn’t afford to buy. Another product geared at Dusters selling illegal nanotech to companies too lazy to do their own R&D. Alice just hoped Smitha never tried to sell her wares off-world. Getting caught breaking the Earth quarantine net held a long prison term. Whatever it took to keep the colonies clean of the runaway nanites.

“Hey, Alice, this isn’t working.”

Alice agreed, so they paused to hover within sight of the spire, discussing which models to apply and calling on increasingly tenuous industry and academia contacts for advice. They were all aware of the coordinated Grey flare-ups. Everybody could smell something big, but, as usual, nobody knew what to expect.

“Silver, heads up.”

“Wow. So cool.”

The spire had started to shift, its top building in volume into a large sphere sitting on a narrow stalk. It looked like a starved fungal colony, dying cells rising into a suicidal pillar to elevate a bolus of spores meant to burst into the wind. The bolus quickly grew to almost a mile in diameter, by far the largest Grey Alice had ever seen.

A message came from the UN channel, not a general report like before, but a personal one.

“Unit 14, orbital satellites have detected accelerated growth at your location, we are sending a quantum-yield drone to your target, maintain pressure until it arrives.”

Another lifeless crater swallowing up the remnants of an old city. The responsible subcommittees claimed the fallout wasn’t so bad on the new Q bombs, but humanity would still lose more ground, crowding ever more tightly into the remaining fulldome cities with viable scrubbers. As if Earth was just a contaminant to be locked away and kept from spreading.

“Ouch. I’m sorry, Alice, but I should head out before they unscramble my serials.”

“Wait a minute.”

Alice hated going to him for help, but this had become more than just another collection. She took off her VR interface and got up from her immersion chair, calling out for Jake. Old Pig was no longer projected around her, replaced instead with her apartment’s small living room.

Jake sat at the kitchen table, a handful of books neatly stacked to the side, his computer terminal lowered as he looked up to Alice in the doorway. She squeezed past the oven and put her arms over his shoulders, letting the incredible heat of his body leak into her. He smelled of fresh coffee and pine.

“Hello, darling,” he said, “welcome home.”

She hugged his chest and neck until she could feel his skin shift underneath. Alice enjoyed how it wavered between resisting her pressure and giving in.

“You know what’s going on with the spire?” she asked.

“Yes, I saw. Do you need help?” He looked up with his pale blue eyes, trying to smile.

A pause as she considered what she was about to ask.


“The inner segment of the base is not a supporting matrix or compressed raw materials, it’s an explosive store, high density. I don’t know what the top is, it won’t speak to me. But if you detonate the explosive in an uncontrolled way, the structure will collapse. The rest is too far gone to revert and rebuild, so it will probably scatter. Want me to upload some suggestions to Old Pig?”

“Thank you, Jake, your insight is more than enough.” Alice got up and turned back to the empty doorway, letting her hand linger on his shoulder.

“I love you,” he offered as her hand slid off.

He lied, of course. Jake enjoyed the quiet study in her tiny New York apartment, the crumbling books and ever-amusing human knowledge he hoarded while building himself with all the awe and giddy joy of a child learning about sex for the first time. But it was a strangely captivating mimicry, pointless and obsessive in equal measure yet still exhilarating.

“I love you too.” Alice looked back with a smile, knowing what the word meant and not lying.

With a step through the threshold she was back at her ship, the small cockpit inviting and warm, as if Jake’s heat followed her back.

“Silver, check your com for my plan. I hope your PQB cannon beam is narrow.”

“As a virgin butthole. All right, let’s do this thing!”

Alice got near to the base of the stalk, where it expanded into a large rectangular square. She detached her incendiary blaster, but waited. Then Silver fired her cannon, focusing the blast on a meter-sized area on the Spire’s base, Alice’s craft barely shaking from the aftershock. Alice knew Silver’s newer model PQB would be much better than hers, but didn’t expect such a stark difference.

The hole it left on the Grey was rapidly closing, but Alice had enough time to shove her detached torch inside, right next to the remnant cord of the sensor module that had first entered the Grey when it was still a spire. She quickly reprogrammed the sensor so its transmission and motility wire grabbed onto the torch and drove it deeper into the Grey, right where the explosive reservoir met the stalk.

“Payload set! Back off!”

Old Pig and Sagittarius rose up several miles above the Grey, then waited as the remote program turned on the torch. Alice held her breath in a pregnant second of blind inactivity, then another of shiftless anxiety, then another of fear that something had gone wrong.

A bright flare erupted from the Grey, saturating all detectors, pushing against their ships with an angry shockwave.

“Is it down?” Alice asked Silver, knowing her sensors would recover faster.

“Yes! Yes! It’s keeled over and half-chewed up at the bottom, looks like it’s dispersing!”

Alice leaned back as Silver dove to start collecting the escaping Grey. In the distance, a small triangle turned and disappeared, perhaps the called off Q-bomb drone.

With no small sense of professional pride, Alice sent a summary of her strategy to the other collectors, directly as well as through Central. She even thought of forwarding it to the UN commission, but didn’t. That would be a bit too cheeky.

The UN channel beeped. Not a message, a live feed. She turned it on. A graying man in a tight military uniform leaned into the cam, displacing the young communications officer turning away from his station.

“Collector Alice, superb job out there, we appreciate your effort. Please collect as much of the remaining Grey for study as you can, particularly remnants of the large terminal sphere. An advanced collection team is on its way, but whatever you can get right now would be of great assistance.”

“Yes, sir.” She replied with practiced detachment, wondering what the devil was going on. The Commission would never stoop to debris study. But before she could rearrange her wits well enough to ask, the soldier shut off the transmission.

“Silver, I just got a very strange call from the Commission. They ordered me to collect some of the Grey.”

“Well, come on down, sister! There’s more here than I could ever pack in my rig anyway.”

“Sure, but—”

“Silly, just load up the net, it’s all over the place. Things are going to get real interesting now.”

First Alice lowered Old Pig to begin the collection, but then she checked the public web. She immediately found what Smitha was talking about.

Hundreds of static and full-VR vids showed propulsion contrails rising from the ground with plumes of billowing orange and yellow. Each drove up a sphere similar to the one she’d just destroyed. Vid after vid showed dozens of spheres rising from multiple horizons to charge at the sky.

The reservoir was not a lateralizing explosive or digging apparatus, it was fuel. Alice stared at a leaked orbital video of countless Grey spheres spreading away from Earth, then personal snippets from Dusters and vacationers gazing at the comets passing their ships, drunk in the experience of the first extraterrestrial Grey excursion.

Several of the Grey spheres crashed into the quarantine grid and were destroyed, but most punched through. Layer after layer broke up in their wake, the shrapnel burning up in the atmosphere, leaving Earth naked again for the first time in almost fifty years.

Alice knew she was supposed to fear this and tossed that aside; she hoped the Grey would find a home for themselves. Not just in the asteroid belts and terraformed moons but in the places humans were too frail to enter. She wished for them to taste the far reaches of dark matter clouds, the burning atmospheres of gas giants and the very surface of suns.

Her hands trembled on Old Pig’s controls, not out of fear or apprehension, but at the sudden and overwhelming realization that she no longer wanted to be a collector.

The next day she would abandon her earthbound ship and purchase a Duster craft with her illicit savings from selling Grey on the side—one large enough for both her and Jake. They would chase after what they could only access through distorted mirrors and abstract mathematics, artifice desperate for artistry, Jake seeking the human and Alice the machine, each reaching out to distant fires not of their making.


An Oasis of Amends

You should have seen this, Rowan.

From the observation platform on the converted oil rig, I watch the giant conveyor lift the chunks out of the ocean, see them climb to the coastal plain, see the freeway width of the belt disappear over the horizon, and feel like a Lego figurine in a life-sized industrial zone.

The solid wall of noise makes me sweat as much as the heat does. The shouting, the mechanical roar of the conveyor, the screaming crunch of the ice, and the shattering splashes of the chunks crashing back into the ocean make it hard to think. So I don’t think, but let the memory of you pervade me, a bittersweet sensation I love and dread.

While I was still trying to fight the greenhouse effect, lobbying for emission agreements, investing billions in sustainable energy, strengthening sea walls around the globe, you were way ahead of me. I called you a pessimist when you said global warming was a given, the inevitable result of humanity’s carelessness. You told me nothing we could do to mitigate our mistakes would have measurable effects on any useful time scale. You argued that it was too late to fight causes, that all our influence and wealth were better spent dealing with the consequences. I called you fatalistic, mocked you for a harbinger of doom.

In the end, you relented, chose our marriage over your beliefs. This keeps me awake at night, that you gave in, relinquished your conviction to support my follies instead. Is that what love does to us?

I should have listened to you.

Another iceberg drifts stately into the bay, propelled by a trio of power pushers and its own embedded engines, into the maws of the Nutcracker. You would have loved that name. The enormous steel jaws rise from the waves and squeeze together, seeming to stop dozens of meters from the tip of the iceberg. Under water, the automatic drills deliver their charges, and the berg shudders with muffled explosions, the jaws recommencing their unrelenting squeeze until the ice shatters into house- and car-sized chunks. As the nutcracker opens, the sweeper ships move in, herding the chunks deeper into the bay. For all its violence and chaos, the operation runs smoothly, and in fifteen minutes, the first chunks rise from the ocean to be conveyed inland.

The explosions, the waves, the rumbling of the conveyor travel through the rig until my chest vibrates. Sweating, I climb the stairs to the ancient waiting Chinook, its twin rotors attempting to overwhelm the symphony of shudders.

This is how the dyke shook before it collapsed.

We were there at the breach when The Netherlands were lost. The worst south-western storm in the history of Western Europe took giant bites out of the Dutch dunes even as the Zeeland Delta Works succumbed to the onslaught. The evacuation of the country, which I had fought to postpone because the sea wall would damn well hold, wasn’t even halfway complete.

Was it guilt that kept me hauling sand bags? Was it love that kept you by my side? At least I know what it was when the dyke crumbled, and you were swept away while I was dragged to safety, screaming your name.

That was punishment.

I’m making amends now, Rowan. Don’t mourn what’s already lost, you told me. Deal with what’s left. You’re gone, my love, but I’m still here.

“They’re going to melt,” you said, shrugging. “Both of them, north and south. There is no way you can reverse that process now.”

“But if you’re right, if that’s true, sea levels will rise by as much as six meters. Whole coastal regions will be lost, millions of lives. You think I’m just going to sit by and let that happen?”

You shook your head and smiled. “They’re going to melt. The question is: can we let them melt where a gazillion gallons of freshwater will do some good?”

The Chinook passes over Nouamghar and follows the conveyor belt. On either side, the scorched sands of the Western Sahara stretch to the shimmery horizon. From up here, the conveyor looks like a foot-wide black strip loaded with crushed ice. But I know its actual width, and my mind locks up trying to calculate how much water is traveling inland.

We’re already raising the water table, Rowan. It took the fortune I amassed with sustainable energy and draws every Gigawatt of solar power from the Algerian farm, but it’s happening.

Sixty miles inland, melting station A feeds the Benichab irrigation hub. From the helicopter, I look down upon the slowly expanding circle around the hub, the green land, wadis that used to be dry most of the year now supporting dates and coconuts and meadows.

You should have seen this.


A Hundred Years From Now

for Rabindranath Tagore


At the dawn of the 21st century

in this era of war and deaths

my soul seeks refuge in poetry

though no one writes like Wordsworth

or Keats because lakes have dried

and daffodils do not bloom to inspire

the poets—the sylvan vase no more

impresses them to find a seam

between truth and beauty

Once the world of innocence

the world Blake portrayed in his poetry

was the world readers would dream

to build—now experience fraught with

greed flares up all over

We have witnessed world wars

and read The Waste Land

still millions have taken the road

Frost declined to pass through

Now we write elegies for Aylan Kurdi

for thousands of other children too

We write poems on mass migration

on Syria, Palestine, Myanmar

on chilling Charlie Hebdo tragedy

and Manhattan massacre

or on Rana Plaza disaster

But what else should I take refuge in

if not poetry, if not the words

written for a world free from war

and violence and blood?

Sitting under a tree without leaves

by the bank of a river without water

near a field without grass

I see a young poet writing a new poem

after 100 years on tree, field, river

and flower in imagination—

imagination indeed creates poetry

From this heated globe

from the world of the dying

with this bleeding heart

I send my love to the young poet

my best wishes for a better world

Many things will be extinct after 100 years

Forms will transform

Even the deathless will be forgotten

but words will continue to live

‘You Are From the U.S.’

I kneel on the ground, a knife in both hands, its sharpened blade pointed at the center of the earth. I thrust the weight of my body against the wooden handle until my palms hurt—still, the serrated edge penetrates no more than a centimeter. The sun, high overhead and unsympathetic, beats down on my scalp. I breathe, re-adjust my grip, and heave into the knife again.

Another centimeter.

A man in a button-down shirt and a patterned blue lungi watches me from a couple feet away. He has also knelt down, perhaps to signal encouragement.

Centimeter by centimeter, I continue, forcing the soil knife deeper until its blade nearly disappears into the earth. I push and tug, scooping out as much dirt as I can, and deposit the hard-earned crumbles into a large plastic bucket. I stand up, slowly because my legs are cramped, and find another spot a few feet away.

And then I do it all over again. Ten times in total, leaving ten pockets dimpling the plot of land. I stand up, wipe off the blade with a dirt-speckled rag, and insert the knife back into its leather sheath.

I now have the soil that I need from this village, a place called Motbati, located on the southwest coast of Bangladesh. It is a riverine landscape, with streams and channels carving through the delta, seeping into its nooks and crannies. It is the height of dry season, and the purpose of my visit is to investigate the encroachment of saltwater, flowing inland from the ocean into farmland and sources of freshwater.

I’ve explained to the man, who is the community’s elected leader, that I will take some of the soil back with me to Dhaka. There, I will mix it with deionized water and then measure the salt content of the concoction. As I bag a sample of soil, several beads of sweat trickle off my face and drip into the container. Upon contact, they immediately meld and vanish into the dirt. Damn it, I think aloud. For a second, I wonder if I’ve now messed up the sample. I decide that it is probably all right and toss the container into my pack. It is much too hot to be wearing a scarf, but the orna is an integral part of the three-piece salwar kameez, typically worn by Bangladeshi women. Given my foreign appearance, I have been employing all the devices that I can to look a little less out of place.

I squint against the sun and survey the area. I tear off a piece of masking tape, label the sample, and jot down a few notes. The logbook’s pages and string binding are falling apart, from being crammed into a jute bag next to assorted fieldwork supplies. I scribble, “Weather: Last rained 3 months ago, currently sunny and dry. 80s.” And then, “Soil sample taken from open area on eastern side of village, plot is scorched & barren. Woman in sari brings goat to forage, but no grass here. Plot surrounded by 2-ft deep ponds with saltwater shrimp (bagda). Crop looking burnt in fields nearby (wheat?). Fields have fertilizers applied (chemical). Ground very hard, powdery, almost white.”

Sample collection complete, the logbook goes back into the bag, sandwiched again amongst the voice recorders, headlamps, handheld GPS, digital camera, extra AAA batteries, and backup battery pack. Now, I follow the community leader back toward the western, greener side of the village. We walk away from the saltwater ponds, toward the refuge of slender trees that provide a few fragments of shade.

We are a long way from Dhaka, and my itinerary includes several other communities scattered across the southwest coast. Even so, I am fairly certain that salinity testing will confirm what I can already see: that saltwater seeping in from the Bay of Bengal is destroying the fertility of this cracked corner of the Ganges river delta. Agriculture is nearly impossible, worth a farmer’s toil only because livelihood options are so few and human labor so cheap in this region of the world.

The locals I’ve met with say that, yes, the land has always been saline to some extent, but the problem is getting worse. They mention three reasons: commercial saltwater shrimp farming, diversion of the Ganges river upstream, and sea level rise. Some are resigned, many are indignant, but nearly everyone points out that—far from being a purely “environmental” phenomenon—it is inequality, its effects manifested in multiple spheres and compounded, which aggravates the salinity crisis and determines who suffers most.

Within this area, one villager has the resources to take advantage of the intruding saltwater by creating a shrimp pond, which is likely to exacerbate the infiltration. A poorer neighbor has been forced to give up on farming here. He may have to travel north to find work as a migrant farmer. Or, if he stays in this area, he may resort to wage labor for the pond owner—stocking shrimp, weeding algae, guarding the ponds at night. In either scenario, he will make less than a couple dollars a day.

Within this floodplain, India, which borders Bangladesh on nearly all sides, is the more powerful country. It has built a dam that diverts the flow of the Ganges river away to generate hydroelectricity, leaving hundreds of Bangladeshi communities downstream without freshwater or legal recourse. According to the communities, water is withheld when it is most needed. It flows freely when the land is already saturated by the rainy season monsoons.

On this climate-disrupted planet, those in the developed world are unleashing inordinate volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, fueling sea level rise and extreme weather events, like the region’s tropical cyclones. Inhabitants of the Global South, meanwhile, are sacrificing their self-sufficiency to produce saltwater shrimp—ironically, for international export and consumption by the Global North.

Adding to the irony, I have flown in from the United States, to conduct research to fulfill the requirements of a doctorate degree in public health. These days, I am often wondering whether the good derived from the work will offset the carbon footprint of my air travel. When I confess this to my classmates, they take it as a joke. They laugh, but I know I am navigating tenuous terrain, between solidarity and hypocrisy.

The locals know, too, that it is a dubious position. At one of the first communities I visit, a dozen men and women have gathered in a dirt courtyard to meet with me. They have been waiting for two hours, my delay caused by an unexpected rainstorm and the challenge of traveling by motorized rickshaw on unpaved roads. “Well, you are from the US,” they begin. Adolescents and children are hovering nearby; there aren’t enough bamboo mats for everyone to sit. All eyes are examining us—my interpreter, a polite, articulate young woman from the local university, and me. “Your country is the most responsible,” one man continues, invoking the words jalvayu parivartan, Bangla for ‘climate change.’ Many in the group recognize the term, and shake their heads in emphasis. The man then asks if I agree with the statement. More importantly, he adds, what is being done about it, and what am I doing about it?

It is a challenge. Persia, my interpreter, translates it. Her soft tone fails to mask the man’s frustration.

I meet the man’s gaze and reply in English that I am in complete agreement. I am hoping that Persia’s translation and my demeanor can convey, at least in some small part, my sincerity.

Then I muster an explanation about the American political system, about how the current situation makes it difficult to enact policies to reduce carbon emissions. I am hoping this time that the response somehow sounds less equivocal in Bangla. It is 2014, and I am oblivious to how badly circumstances will deteriorate three years later. We are all oblivious, but from where my hosts are sitting, the situation looks serious already.

Finally, I speak about the purpose of the research. I describe how, although this is only a small study funded by one university, it may help bring the community’s situation to light and make it known to a wider audience. The findings might influence, if not politicians, then donors and agencies that decide how to prioritize money spent on the needs of the developing world. Although I mean every sentence of what I say, I have mixed feelings about offering these lines. They are written into the research consent forms; they already sound too rehearsed. I am painfully aware that I have come empty-handed, equipped only with suppositions and hypotheses.

Yet, if the questions are a test, I have passed. It has little to do with the adequacy of my answers. I am allowed to continue my work because, at the end of the day, there is still a need here. Merited or not, I, like any other foreign presence, represent some chance of a difference for the inhabitants of this region, a fact that is both motivating and unsettling.

For the weeks and months thereafter, as I collect water and soil samples and interview communities along the southwest coast, I am repeatedly interrogated about the United States—its place in world politics, its role in the climate crisis. To my initial surprise, most villagers are willing to put aside their work and earnings for the day simply to share their experiences and insights. It is a generosity hardly deserved by a US-based researcher flying in 9,000 miles on a carbon-spewing jet plane. I mention this to a local collaborator back in Dhaka, and he grins and says, “See! Didn’t I say that Bangladeshis are the most hospitable people and they would help you?”

I can’t help but smile back and agree with him. Still, the work is far from done. There are often things lost in translation, but the parting message given by one elderly woman as I set out from her village replays clearly in my mind: “Do your research,” she instructs me, “but make it useful.”


Jane Elliott Interview: “Rumplestiltskin”

Michael: Johannes and I teamed up again this time with some questions for Jane Elliott about her Reckoning 2 story, “Rumplestiltskin”.

Johannes: Can you tell me of the power of naming things?

Jane: I think the obvious answer is that naming a thing reveals it. There’s a lot of folklore around naming and claiming that names have power. Revealing your true name gives another person power over you. In this case, our names represent our vulnerability. We have to be seen to be named.

The more difficult answer about where the story came from has to do with the idea that our world has grown exponentially. Globalization and field specialization have made human community and human knowledge larger than any individual can hold. When the world was a village of 100, I imagine it felt easier to know things. To know what we stood for. To know what was safe. We all specialized in the sphere that sustained us. We knew the names of the plants around us and which people at the watering hole could be trusted with our children.

Often, in our world of global competition, I feel lost at sea. I don’t know what to look at, so I don’t know how to begin to address my own fears. This mystery cloaks the important issues. It keeps me afraid.

My story is clearly over-simplified. However, I think there’s a comfort in isolating one thing and naming it. For a moment, at least, it can become either good or evil. I see this as the first stage of understanding. I don’t want to live in a black and white world, and I don’t believe in dichotomies, but I do want to explore my own values. I want to explore the issues and try names for them and get curious about whether, in my ideal world, they exist. In what form should they exist? Why do they exist now?

In exploration, I might create 100 names for the same thing. I’m not the same person I was when I wrote this story, and I wouldn’t write the same story now. The exploration, the naming, has changed me and my understanding of the world. The power, in this case, is profoundly personal. It’s not about power over something, but power within oneself to grasp and adapt and challenge and grow.

Johannes: Yours is a dark story, one that draws from a million visions of foodless, desertful futures. How come/why did you want to write such a future?

Jane: I don’t know if I did want to. People tell me that hopelessness isn’t useful. It’s what people who benefit from the current system want smart, aware individuals to feel. Such a paralyzing emotion makes us ineffective. All the same, I can’t fault anyone for feeling despair in the process of examining our present. Nor do I think it’s useful to deny any of our feelings. These are our instincts. They show up to tell us something.

It’s true that we can’t live in despair. Despair admits defeat, but we have to look into our worst fears or suffer through consequences of a life unexamined. I think a 3 page story is the perfect vehicle for examining this kind of darkness. Any longer, and we couldn’t hold it, but at 3 pages, we can bear to look. The hope is that we can take an honest look at the worst, so that we can come back to the world and work with a sense of urgency and purpose.

Michael: This story takes a folktale and moves it back away from the sanitized bedtime story realm of Disney, back even past Grimm and into a territory I might call primal. How do you think the role of folktale and myth in humanity’s definition of itself is changing as we move forward? Where do you see your own writing falling in that process?

Jane: Mythology shifts to reflect the stresses and obsessions of a culture. When we examine the stored wisdom of our ancestors, their tales have a repeated warning against human pride. They divide the earth into distinct realms, and humans who reach beyond their realm toward godhood always suffer for it.

In Western culture’s modern era, our tales have shifted away from maintaining any complex or subtle balance. Our current folktales seem to engage almost exclusively in the narrative of good vs. evil, as though such a dichotomy really exists. Our children grow up believing their greatest purpose is to become super heroes. But super heroes are humans at their worst. They’re prideful and violent and model reaction rather than thoughtful action. In other words, as a species, we have come to believe so thoroughly in our own supremacy that we have replaced the gods of our ancestors’ lore.

I think the role of folklore and myth has always been to reflect our understanding of ourselves. We use stories to demystify, to problem solve, to reinforce cultural values, to sooth. They are an outgrowth of our collective consciousness, so perhaps the question isn’t, what role does folklore play, but, how can we actively read folklore in order to reveal ourselves and meaningfully reflect on our values. At their best, I think that’s what these re-tellings do. They name and question the values that made them.

Johannes: What’s your favourite fairy tale, and why?

Jane: If I named one here, it would be a lie. I love the repeating narratives and the ways that folktales reflect the cultures that created them. I love the way they change to reflect changing value systems and depending on who is telling the story. I can’t isolate a particular story from that tradition.

Michael: These are great answers! As honest and unflinching as your story. Thank you very much.

From Paris, With Rage

“Nonviolence declares that the American Indians could have fought off Columbus, George Washington, and all the other genocidal butchers with sit-ins; that Crazy Horse, by using violent resistance, became part of the cycle of violence, and was ‘as bad as’ Custer. Nonviolence declares that Africans could have stopped the slave trade with hunger strikes and petitions, and that those who mutinied were as bad as their captors; that mutiny, a form of violence, led to more violence, and, thus, resistance led to more enslavement. Nonviolence refuses to recognize that it can only work for privileged people, who have a status protected by violence, as the perpetrators and beneficiaries of a violent hierarchy.”

Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State


Cops with eyes like sharks and faces like the underside of a boot are waiting for us as we get off the bus from London—the state of emergency manifest as a column of cyborg gendarmerie toting an arsenal of machineguns, tasers, handcuffs and kevlar armour. They stare. We stare back—predator and prey eyeing each other before the chase commences. We slip past them unmolested, disappearing into the suffocating warmth of the Metro. I am glad to be travelling with a trio of giggly matronly types. They are three womyn from EcoDharma, attendees of the first theatre of the oppressed workshop I gave there two months before: Oak—a bright-eyed leprechaun with fiery red hair and ruddy cheeks, her chuckling demeanour masking deep sensitivity and a scarred heart; Z. a shaven-headed elfin with a smile like a new moon, currently living in an intentional community in the south of Spain; Susannah—long, viridian tresses and a crackling voice, visiting out of Bristol, and at the biggest protest she’s been to in her seventy years.

“Ha. You’re like the virgin, the crone and the mother.”

“I’m no mother.”

“I’m no virgin.”

“And who you calling a crone?”

They laugh, a harmony like a deer bursting through dry twigs to crash into a babbling brook, echoing unnatural against the tiles of the Metro. They haven’t stopped talking the whole trip over from London.

The benches of the Parisian boulevards are lined with huddled forms in sleeping bags, their possessions arranged neatly around them like genteel barricades. It’s warm down here, even peaceful once the trains stop running.

Still, I am relieved we have the promise of a roof, of a bed and shelter.

We march, and arrive at L’Annexe only to discover everyone has already moved on to a cabaret night at another squat. We troupe over there, a long walk through dark city streets.

Two bullet holes in a window with an unhappy smiley face painted below them form macabre eyes to the frown. I am reminded of Budapest, where my guide pointed them out in the walls of the buildings from the revolutionary days.

“God,” says Oak. “Is this where the shooting was?”

“One of the places,” says Z.

We cast our eyes over the layers of floral tribute laid out before La Belle Equipe. Hundreds of bouquets, handwritten messages, candles, roses, lilies, tulips, some faded and shrivelled already, others freshly dropped, laying piled on the ground, stacked before the closed doors of the restaurant.

Z. is chattering. I catch only the second half of it: “–there was also the have-nots, the economic underclass who attended no cabarets, whose labor built the Tower. There was even a gang of illegalist anarchist bankrobbers around at that time in France—the Bonnot Gang—who stole from banks calling it expropriating from the rich. They were the first people to use motorcars to getaway. The police had to chase them on foot or on bicycles. They started after the leader was fired by his boss–”

“You have to ask—would they have started robbing banks if there had been work for them?”

“God, I wonder,” asks Oak. “I wonder how many waiters, plongeurs and busboys died in the shooting?”

“Is it better that the rich die than the poor?” asks Z.

“I’m tired. Let’s go to bed,” says Susannah.

oneslutriot. Strong & Stable, 2017. Pens on paper.

L’Annexe is impressive: a tall, four-floor warehouse complex, scrubbed clean and polished, carpeted and furnished. It reminds me of all the best social centres from London, though it will only be short-lived. A crew who thought they were about to be evicted had remained in their old home and volunteered the space to host the arts-activism programme during the COP21 Climate Conference.

I drift through the kitchen area, where hot soup and salad is being prepared by members of the Anti-Cop Kitchen Collective, through a partition of plastic sheeting, past a serious sounding meeting on food rights and conscious cafés in South America. There is bustle and business everywhere, the place a hive of activity.

“So hello, this is the legal briefing. Thanks for attending. Now as you are going to be part of the de-escalation team, you will be at high risk of violence and arrest as you will be stood directly between the police lines and the main protest. It’s important that you memorise the names of some solicitors who are sympathetic to the cause, as the police will think you intended to be arrested if you write the names or the numbers down on your body. They will not call the number on the flyer.

“At the refugee march people attended and were then later identified and arrested by the police at other events. This is because of the state of emergency; 58 people were arrested, yet only two received warnings for attending a forbidden demo. Maximum sentence for this is 1 year imprisoned.

“At the Climate march there was a mass act of civil disobedience that resulted in a kettle, tear gas and baton charges and 317 random arrests.

“You don’t have to carry your ID. You can give your name and a date of birth, and that counts as identifying yourself, but you may want to decide whether you wish to comply with the police state. If they don’t believe you, you want to prepare that someone has access to your passport. You could be asked to leave France for one year.

“If you are attending the march, you need to plan as if you will get arrested. If you are taking a gas mask, it is classed as a defensive weapon. You should be careful taking anything that could be deemed a projectile. Don’t take any drugs, knives, guns or whatever, and if you are arrested, try to hide your phone inside your pants, as the police here don’t check as thoroughly as other places. There’s already been examples of people uploading video messages from inside the jail. If you’re caught, call the number and tell them which police station you are in.”

“So what have the police said about the march?”

“It changes every day. Under the state of emergency it’s illegal for more than two people with a political message to gather, which is why people are heading to the convergence point in pairs. Any attendance at a political protest is an act of civil disobedience. They have permitted the human chain and tolerated writing ‘climate justice’ with people’s bodies. The protest with the thousands of empty pairs of shoes was beautifully done, but the red lines action is still civil disobedience. The state of emergency means more stop and search and raids on many of the squats and convergence centres across Paris. L’Annexe was raided just last week by a hundred stormtroopers and is under constant armed surveillance. We are half expecting another raid before Saturday. The legal team for the protests have been put under house arrest, but nothing more.

“If you are arrested, you need to use the buddy system. Make sure you are clear who your buddy is, and do not lose them. If they go to the toilet, you go with them. With your buddy you organise into an affinity group, making sure you are always with people who are watching, but not at risk. They should always know who is there, what happened, and where, and afterwards these are the guys who greet you outside the police station with champagne.

“Now, please can you raise your hands, wrists together. If you bend your hands down, when they put the handcuffs on you they will be looser than if you just keep your hands like this. Believe me, if you are cuffed for a long time, this will make a big difference. Remember to hide your phone in your pants and when you can, smuggle it out and text people to let them know what’s happened to you. The process at the station is that they will fingerprint you, photo you, and frisk you, but not very thoroughly. Often at this point it’s easy to ‘accidentally’ smudge the fingerprints, or mess up the photo somehow, or generally play around with them to delay a bit more. They will keep you for 4 hours to check ID, then up to 24 hours to investigate you.

“When you are to be released, you don’t have to sign anything. Repeat—YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SIGN ANYTHING. They may pressure you, but there are people already regretting signing something they did not really understand, and it’s making more problems for them now. Even when you receive your possessions back, you do not have to sign anything. Repeat—YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SIGN ANYTHING. The police may put something else in with your stuff and cause you a lot of problems. Some people we know unwittingly signed a conditional discharge, and if they had held out, they wouldn’t have had to sign anything.

“They normally tell you it’s a piece of paper describing your time in custody, but the translators there are very much on the police’s side. If they do anything illegal during your time in custody, you can appeal afterwards, but if you sign, it makes it much, much harder.

“If you have no access to a lawyer or interpreter, try to keep mental notes on what the police do, or do not do, and make physical notes immediately afterwards. If the police decide they are going to investigate a crime, they will give you access to a solicitor within 4 hours.

“Now, when being interviewed, it’s a bit different from in the UK. In France it is not ‘no comment’, but ‘I have nothing to declare’. Repeat after me.”






“Now let me describe my ideal arrest. I’m in for 24 hours, so I can rest, I am with my friends. I have done the handcuff trick so I am ‘comfortable’ and have my phone hidden in my pants. I’ve told them I have nothing to declare and have managed to smudge my fingerprints and ruin the photo. I sign nothing! After 24 hours I am released with my friends and greeted by champagne and chocolate and beer.

“Now, afterwards, I have to deal with trauma. Arrests can be and are often violent. I need to make sure that I have money for the Metro, a map. The police could release me somewhere far away where I’ve never been before. Have you got a safe, warm place to go back to? A major thing after release is not to pressure people, give them time. At some point they will want to speak.

“Make sure you take the time to read all the legal info, educate yourself as much as possible.

“So overall, gatherings are prohibited. You can get a maximum fine of 75,000 euros or 6 months in prison, but so far all that has been issued is a warning. They have the power to ban people from certain areas, or force certain groups to dissolve.

“Let’s talk about medical preparation. Tear gas. First of all, it’s a projectile weapon. If you get hit by a canister it can seriously hurt. It can kill. Secondly, the gas burns on the skin, the eyes, but it won’t kill you. It’s like intensely concentrated onions, but it won’t kill you, so don’t panic. You can limit its effect with a scarf soaked in vinegar or lemon juice. Make sure you have baby wipes. Now if tear gas is blowing in the wind, walk upwind of it, sideways. Unless of course the police are there. There’s some great footage from the 29th if any of you are into riot porn.

“If it gets on to your skin, it can cause some problems. Don’t wear any make-up, and wear glasses, not contact lenses, as they can melt into the eye. If it’s CS gas you may not even see it, as it’s invisible. Now can I have a volunteer to pretend they’ve been tear-gassed? Ok, thank you.

“Now, if I see someone has been gassed, what do I do? Ok, calm down, calm down, it’s ok. It’s Eve here. Kneel down, turn your head on one side. And now I squirt water in from one side. Now, from the other. Good. If you do it from the top down it can burn the body. Tell them the effects won’t last more than half an hour.

“Pepper spray is a short range weapon. If it gets on the clothes, remove them. When you go home, don’t have a hot shower, wipe it off and use cold water.”

“It helps to have clean skin.”

“One day I might.”

“I once saw someone in tear gas stand with their eyes screwed shut and not move. Just before it hit, they took a huge deep breath, hyperventilated, and waited until it subsided, sipping air with their eyes closed.”

“Swimming goggles can also help. One of the hardest things is the impulse to get away. We ended up fumbling around with our buddies.

“Ok, now if the police charge, one more thing is to cover your head and neck with your hands. If you want to keep your hands up, make sure you do so in fists not fingers are the batons will smash them to pieces . . . .

“Ok, let’s review the solicitor names . . . .”

“The struggle is the tension between holding on and letting go.”

We are in the large space downstairs at l’Annexe. Word of the workshop has spread. I count sixty people lined up against one wall. An expectant, almost religious silence has descended. Even towards the other half of the space, beyond the plastic curtains I can see people tip-toeing past as they continue to prepare the next meal from the Anti-Cop Kitchen.

I swallow and breathe deep down into my stomach in short, controlled bursts.

This is a totally spontaneous, open exercise. I have never done it with so many people.

“The ritual. We are going to perform a ritual together. When I say begin, you are invited to enter into the space and perform your part of the ritual. The ritual will be over when it is over. There will be no set time-limit. When we collectively feel it has come to a close, it will be over. The world needs healing. We need healing. So this shall be a ritual of healing.”

There is a long, open moment, and for that moment my heart leaps into my throat and my stomach clenches and my mind whirls and my tongue goes dry.


At first in silence, people begin to move, entering into the space, prostrating themselves on the floor, or beginning to walk in slow circles. At first, the efforts are individual, chaotic, fragmented invitations, but then the machine mind takes over, and people begin to connect and feel what is happening around them, to move together cohesively. No one speaks. No one explains or directs or orders. People sense and feel how to work together to create this ritual space spontaneously, without pre-planning, without leaders or followers, people coming together autonomously to create something bigger than their individual selves.

A bald-head monk in saffron robes is moving in slow, serene circles around the outside, chanting low and calm. Others join him, breaking from smaller circles within to follow. A second circle, closer in, is faster and lighter, people skipping and singing in high clear voices, whirling their arms and zigzagging high and low like swallows on the evening breeze. At the centre, dead centre, a woman kneels, head to the crowd, piercing the chanting and song with a high-pitched, keening wail.

Others gather to her, and the lamentations sear through the room, high, screeching releases of treble agony, soaring above the mid-level melodies and the deep, bass chanting.

The room is electrified. I feel every nerve on my body tingle. A hallucinogenic harmony swamps the space. Time dissipates and I have visions of the entire solar system, the Spiral Arm of the galaxy, whirling in cosmic union in this room in Paris. Electron people whirl around atoms of raw emotion in human form. My head swims with the mix of chanting, wailing and shattering whoops.

And then the movement begins to slow, person by person, sections of the mandala settling to rest, contemplative and still. Frequency by frequency, silence is restored. A stillness settles over the group, part by part, until everything is frozen and there is only the deafening emptiness of sixty people breathing together.

My voice rumbles as if in a cavern.

“The ritual is now at an end. You may remain in this space if you wish, or you may leave. If you need people, reach out to those around you. Take care of yourself. Thank you.”

Trancelike and wild-eyed, people drift from the mandala, and it crumbles apart as people silently and slowly return to themselves. Ambient noise of the kitchen, the street, the world returns.

“Fooking hell,” says Oak. “That were a bit intense, want it?”

I’ve been invited to sit in with Rooty, Eve and M. who gave the legal briefing earlier in the day. We gather upstairs in one of the open workspaces. People drift through. Looking round the three womyn, it seems like they have been barely sleeping for weeks. They have all been here more than a month, organising and participating, working ceaselessly to coordinate the many different groups involved in the protest. It seems they have a job for me.

“So we’ve been tasked with this de-escalation. . . . We are now de-escalation angels. But is it even really possible?”

“We’ve been in almost constant contact with the police, and with the Secretary of State. They are terrified that tomorrow will turn into a riot. I mean, is this going to work?”

“Well, as I see it, the de-escalation crew’s role is to help create a joyous atmosphere. We’ll be public game playing, some stewarding I guess, and generally trying to help turn tense situations around and have fun. If the tear gas goes off we’ve obviously already failed.”

“So the Rebel Clown Army will be there. They will be on the front line next to the police, then you guys, and then the main march. Also, the climate angels will be coming, have you seen them? Oh they are just amazing, with these huge, feathered wings. Just beautiful. There’s a great video online of a wing smacking a cop in the face—purely by accident of course. There’s going to be foghorns announcing the beginning of the march, the moment when people lay the flowers down, and then two minutes silence.”

“At the end of the two minutes silence the brass band will kick off, and the party starts.”

“So we’re really going for a funeral ritual. A funeral for the environment, for the failure of the governments to do anything meaningful, and then a big party atmosphere.”

“I can’t wait for Saturday night when it’s all over. I am going to do some serious dancing.”

“Straight out of the cells and on to the dance floor, ha ha.”

“It’s been a long two weeks.”

“We’ve all earned it.”

“Oh, the workshops today just helped so much. So much relief, just to remember that all of this is just made up. Invented.”

“It’s so easy to get sucked into all the bullshit, but that’s really all it is.”

“We can tell you now what the route is going to be–”

“But that might all change–”

“Again. We’re on to like Plan X.”

“It’s been a constant clusterfuck. Any other changes—and there will be I’m sure—and we will inform everyone through text. Make sure people get their numbers down for the tree.”

“But as of tonight the convergence will be at the Arc de Triomphe.”

“And from there march to the Eiffel Tower.”

“So the police, the government, are all terrified of anything happening to the Arc de Triomphe. Any vandalism. As much as a bottle thrown at it. They will charge.”

“They will charge. I mean you couldn’t have a bigger symbol of nationalism, militarism, of France itself.”

“They have elections in Paris this weekend and they’re terrified of a riot. They say if there’s a riot, the Right will win in the elections.”

“It’ll ruin the Left’s reputation.”

“By the way, what do you think? Should we buy plant pots for tomorrow?”

“Plant pots?”

“Yes. For the tear gas. It’s the best way to contain it apparently. You just pop a plant pot over the top.”

“Errr. . . . Better to have them and not need them I suppose.”

Suddenly Z. arrives, tears in her eyes, but laughing at the same time.

“I just found out my boyfriend slept with someone else.”

“That’s not funny. Why are you laughing?”

“Oh no, are you ok?”

“Yeah, I know. Just now. I mean, it’s annoying. It’s a shock. I mean, he was the one who didn’t want a polyamorous relationship. He said he was really drunk, and that he hadn’t been drunk like that in over a year.”

“That’s really no excuse.”

“Oh love, come here.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll look after you. It’s going to work out.”

“Thanks, guys. Sorry. Let’s get back to the meeting.”

“So the coalition has agreed that we will not cross the police lines. If we do, they will charge and shut the whole thing down. If anything is thrown, a single thing, they will charge. We’ve gotten all the different groups to agree to the non-violence policy. It’s been a massive job.”

“One of the clowns knows the black bloc crew and he’s meeting with them tonight to ask them not to attend this march.”

“Black bloc here is a bit different than from in the UK. In the UK, they tend to turn up, join in a march, get a bit rowdy, and that’s it.”

“The guy said here ‘they take it seriously.’”

“Whatever that means. Anyway, so hopefully they won’t be there. They can do their own thing, somewhere else, all power to them, but not here.”

“It’s all going to be super-fluffy.”

“We hope. After the 29th the last thing we need is another load of arrests and tear gas.”

“The police are going to do everything they can to avoid that.”

“Maybe tomorrow we could schedule sometime for you to talk directly to the de-escalation bloc. A few of them were a bit shocked by the legal briefing. I think it all got a bit real for them, talking about tear gas and smashed hands and jail.”

“It’s all really unlikely, but of course, everyone should be as prepared as possible for what could happen.”

“One woman has permanently affixed contact lenses. She’s terrified they are going to melt into her eyes! But tomorrow, yes, we’ll organise the group more directly and get everyone to assess where they are comfortable being on the day.”

“God, I’m just so tired. . . .”

“Don’t worry, we are nearly there now.”

We set about our plan, preparing to hit the streets the next day as a human buffer, part of a layer cake of defense between 20,000 protesters, the Rebel Clown Army, and the delightful French riot police.

We speed-date people in pairs to find their buddy. They circle through a number of potential dates, discussing their willingness to be near The Front, as it is known. They discuss fears, hopes, expectations, before swirling on.

I partner with a smiling young bearded Worcestershire boy named Jake—another volunteer from EcoDharma.

“Every buddy pair, get with the buddy pair next to you, so you are a four. This is your brick. Stay close to your brick as much as possible. You are two pairs of buddies, looking after each other. If one half gets arrested, the other can report it. Get their numbers now.”

I sidle over to Oak as the group begins to disperse. She is smiling excitedly, and has buddied with Z., who also grins expectantly. My buddy Jake gathers too. This is our brick. We do a group hug, linking our arms around one another.

“So,” I say. “Ready for a riot?”

oneslutriot. Anti everything, 2017. Pens on paper.

An iceberg from Greenland has been dragged to Paris by boat, where it now sits outside the Pantheon in more than a dozen gleaming shards of diamond, decaying infinitesimally and inexorably before our eyes. We walk, humbled, mesmerised, touching each one solemnly, the icy water chilling our fingertips, anointing our foreheads with it. I wonder how many thousands of years these droplets of water had been trapped in the ice, how many lives had passed between now and the last time it existed as a liquid, how many moments had been strung in between. The scale of it is overwhelming. At the head of our procession, a Buddhist monk in saffron robes with a gentle American English accent provides some reassurance in his quiet confidence, a timely reminder of the inherent emptiness of all phenomena, allowing some philosophical perspective on the tragedy of ecocide.

I have already linked up with Jake; the other buddies and bricks arrive in discreet pairs, having been told to spread out to avoid arousing suspicion. There is Rooty and her wife Loupe, Susannah and the monk, Eve, Z. and Oak. Everywhere are the bright flashes of red we have been asked to wear as part of the red-lines protest.

Freedom, freedom, freedom. . . . Freedom on my mind.

The song spreads, voices raised in the simple refrain, voices harmonising, male and female and other, high and low.

It feels faintly ridiculous, all this hippie trash, but it helps people relax.

Eventually, in that strange group-mind telepathy, silence descends, broken by the ululating cries of a wedding taking place in the church opposite. We return the cry joyously, releasing more tension, more stress, up into the clear Parisian sky.

A tall man in a dog-collar and white suit, his hair a silvery bouffant crown of steel wool, steps from the circle to address us in a strong, mercurial tone.

“Brothers and sisters can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”


“Amen, brothers and sisters. My name is the Reverend Billy, of the Church of Stop Shopping. I’m from New York City, and for many years now, myself and members of the congregation of the Choir of Stop Shopping have been travelling around, meeting with like-minded individuals, and preaching the Gospel of Stop Shopping. We are wild, anti-consumerist gospel shouters and Earth-loving urban activists who have worked with communities all over the world defending community, life and imagination.

“It’s an honour to be here in Paris, and to have attended the workshop yesterday and seen such powerful moments of healing, of people coming together, to nurture each other, to heal one another. Can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”


“This week we’ve seen some dancing in the streets. In particular, the dance with police is heart-breaking and revealing. It is a gift to all of us out here who will carry on the Earth’s work, the job of tornado-ing in the plazas. The mind-leap that the politicians and police make—that any gathering in public space resembles the Other and must be called Extreme—this doesn’t seem like France, but I am naive.

“My lazy thinking has it that I myself would never be this way, but we all fall back into fear, don’t we? We are the predator species, and we forget that we are made of the Earth. We are mammals made of soil and ocean-water, a column of water up on our hind legs.

“That is what we are on both sides of the conflict. But one side has a club and no face. The other, you, you bring your vulnerable body as close to the action as you dare. You show your flesh to the public air and receive the bruise. You show a smile, you are hopping in place, and then running back to slow down a friend’s arrest. Can I get an Earth-a-llujah?”


“When we protest we make a storm in the street that the Earth’s horizon watches with interest. The Earth is our leader and our teacher. We know that the Earth will win. She will heat up but she will survive the extinction that sweeps across her eco-systems. We know that the men in body-armor will join us ultimately as we fall to the ground like leaves in the autumn. At some point the cops too will feel the Earth in their bodies—that is what will persuade them not to work for nationalism descended from old wars.

“The Earth fills us up and sends us into the fight with instructions in its singing molecules. She gives us power beyond policies, ego or courage.

“When we watch you on the streets we feel a strange kind of gratitude—your bodies are like letters arranging in words against the page of the ground. You give us our new instructions!

“Now I don’t have my choir here with me, but two sisters here have volunteered to lead us in a song, Sisters, if you could?”

Two of the sisters step forward.

“This is a song we heard at the conference a lot, a lot of the young activists were singing it during some of the actions, like the Louvre oil action, and I think it’s great that we pick up the voices of others. It goes like this. . . :


People gonna rise like the water, gonna turn this crisis round.

Hear the voice of my great-grand-daughter, singing Climate Justice Now.


We sing between the icebergs and below the Pantheon, and I remember that this is completely illegal, no more than two people are allowed to gather for a ‘political purpose’ under the State of Emergency. As our merry troupe of fluffy rainbow-hippies sings I can’t help but think what utter nonsense that is. I imagine clouds of tear gas pop-pop-popping as canisters fly. I imagine us all crushed and fleeing beneath a charge of black-clad robocops.

I am sat on a bridge overlooking the lazy snake of the Seine as it swirls below me, the free curry and rice given away by garishly dressed hippies from huge steel pots sitting like foam on the water of a sewage outlet in my stomach. My mouth is dry, parched, and all around me herds of strange animals drift and wander: people carrying signs that read ‘system change not climate change’, a pod of merpeople, their hair sea-green with plastic seaweed, a knot of chic students wearing keffiyahs and aviators, a single clown with white face and a red nose holding a balloon in the shape of a heart.

Below me, the brass band is lounging, a mob of twenty people in pink shirts and scarves, lounging in the baking sun, their brass instruments sparkling next to them like the weapons of ornamental soldiers. They have been parping and blasting for the last few hours, the strains of Bella Ciao still ringing in my ears from the assembly in front of the Arc de Triomphe.

Ahead, the Eiffel Tower rises, a monumental spear of iron matrices shooting into a cerulean sky. The walkways around it are a sea of waving flags and banners, people choking every spot of land with colour and movement, swirling in and around each other. Currently on the bridge, a number of people have chosen to sit down and symbolically block the path, urged on by a manic young man with a megaphone. For now, the police are observing casually, seemingly counting under their breath before intervening. I have no energy left, and drift off towards the Tower to find the others.

Jake falls in beside me, a gentle, calming presence, passing me a bottle of water.

“So. What do you think?”

I cast my mind back as we walk. The police had been waiting for us at the Arc de Triomphe. I had been searched by a cop with a face like dogshit. He had found nothing, though he made me remove my leather gloves with studs on them that I had worn against the chill.

Once out of the Metro, we had seen that we were walking into a kettle designed to collect us. At the far end of the boulevard, still a hundred metres before the Arc, a row of grey battle-buses with lines of armoured cops like legionnaires in front of them, blocking our way. At the opposite end, before the roundabout, a second line had drawn up to prevent us leaving. The side roads were still open, left for us to try to disperse, but it was like walking into a cage.

And thousands of people did walk in. We had assembled, orderly and polite, a sea of red and flags of all nations, colours, banners, people blowing whistles and chanting and cheering: “We are nature defending itself!” The sounds of indigenous pan-pipes interwove with the stamping chants of woad-painted earth-defenders clutching home-made shields emblazoned with sigils of trees, hawks and turtles, a pod of people dressed as deep-sea divers, swimming down the street in slow-motion.

At the police line, the dozen or so rebel clowns were already in position, mocking the stance of the cops with their own military pomp. We had lined up behind them, becoming the second buffer line. Whereas the clowns faced the cops, we faced inwards to the sea of people.

The foghorns blasted, and for two minutes, the thousands of people had fallen silent.

I thought about the lake of dead fish I had seen in India where the water had become too acidic from pesticides. I thought about those thousands of glassy eyed fish washing up on to the shore, and the peoples from the village gathering to stare incredulously and hopelessly at them.

Then the brass band had fired up, and a great, ragged cheer gone up from the crowds. The march had begun.

Except the cops had blocked both ways, and there had been no real way for the march to go. They had left open one exit, leading to the left out of the boulevard, and we stood between the clowns and the crowd as thousands of people marched towards us, and as cheerfully as possible we directed them to the left, to squeeze in twos and threes through this narrow gap and continue on their way towards the Eiffel Tower.

It had not felt great, but we stuck to our plan and stayed happy and felt the tension disperse as more and more people fed through the gap. The banners had to be folded up to pass. The Climate Angels, tall, exquisite creatures painted in silver and gold, with huge, ornate, feathery wings of pearl and lapis lazuli, had to edge carefully between the last cop and the wall of the building to get through.

“That boulevard,” I was saying to Jake as we walked back down the bridge towards the Tower. “It was chosen so that nobody would see anything.”

We gather up Oak and Z., looking elated but exhausted.

“Well, at least no broken bones, no tear gas!” says Oak. We smile.

Soon we are through the crowds, and directly under the Eiffel Tower, looking upwards at its skeletal innards like tiny teenagers looking up some massive madam’s metal skirts. It is dizzying, and we sit down on some benches, feeling deflated.

A woman half-hidden in a scarf, but with cropped blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, drifts lazily past me and hands me a piece of paper. On it is typed:


We are all angry now. As destroyers of the death-reality, we must act. The time for peaceful subjugated protest and failed A to B marches is over. They have made criminals of us all. We call on all those who are willing to gather and express their rage in defence of the Earth. Let us take back the streets and defy the State of Emergency.

Meet at Belleville Metro 1900hrs.


I smile.

“Now this looks more like it.”

We get out of the Metro one stop early, wary of walking into a trap, and stroll down to Belleville in high spirits. Our brick swaps beers and rolls cigarettes, skipping through the crowds out shopping or leaving work, approaching Belleville with watchful eyes.

We lean on the bars of the Metro, watching and waiting. A sparkling tingle of anticipation hangs in the air, not a gendarme in sight for the first time in a long time. The streets hum with the quiet business of a winter’s evening in the banlieue, Chinese supermarkets bustling next door to Turkish shops, well-heeled Parisians shuffling between them smoking Gauloise, old men with chic moustaches and young ladies their hair covered with headscarves.

We wait and watch.

Then, we hear them.

Coming up from the underground, the boom-boom-clack of bass and snare, followed by the sharp rattle and a blast of whistle, growing louder and stronger, emerging from the Metro entrance out into the streets to be greeted with ragged cheers and an appreciative laugh of release. It is the samba band from Rhythms of Resistance, thirty-plus strong, decked in pinks and floral tributes, emerging into the evening air.

Boom boom clak! Ba-boom-ba-boom clak-clak!

Bodies crowd around them, maybe two hundred strong, faces from the march and strangers too, some already masked and punching the air, the cries of “Anti-capitalista!” stronger and fiercer than ever, ringing through the streets in time to the band. Soon they have taken the road, and traffic must wait, backing up bemused and patient behind them. Our brick nods to each other, and we step into the road, becoming part of the mass, and them becomes us.

Boom-clack ba-boom-ba-boom clak!

We turn, as one, down a side-street, following the samba band and whoever might be at the head of this march. On the pavements we see older persons, shopkeepers, people with bags of cheese and baguettes, clutching a child’s hand whilst raising a supportive fist to salute us. People are smiling, happy to see the wild and the free marching in defiance of fear and oppression. All the while the cries ring from the buildings, my throat hoarse: “Ah-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalista-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalista!”

Boom-clak! Ba-boom-boom-clak!

The moment is long, the energy increases, so do the number of masks, the feeling of imminent explosion. I am reminded of the Fuck Parades in London, of the Long Week in Rigaerstrasse, the anti-ISA protests in Kuala Lumpur, the liminal moments when parties evolve into riots. The lessons of the legal warning occasionally ring in my memory, but more than anything, I savour this sensation of wild liberation.

Boom! Boom! Boom! Clak-clak-clak!

Blue lights strobe the darkening sky with ultramarine. The urgency of the march picks up, confused commands and bursts of running down the streets. Blue lights ahead, and blue lights behind—the kettle is closing in. We find an alleyway to the right, and soon two hundred people are streaming down it, people dragging their drums along and dumping over bins and trollies into the streets behind them. Someone falls, tripping another over them as they crash to the ground, others stopping to pull them up and encourage them onwards. Energy is bordering on panic now.

We emerge breathless on the far side, next to the canal. Dozens of people are still filtering through behind us and it seems that we have evaded capture—for the moment.

We spot the blue lights assembling at the road bridge, two hundred metres up from us. People are calling to hurry—“Allez! Allez!”—and we move instinctively away from the lights.

Ahead, there is a narrow footbridge over the canal, and beyond that yet more police cars. The noose is closing.

People begin to run, seeing the opportunity to escape slipping away. The bridge rattles and clatters as people pound over it. In the rush, I lose the others. I stop on the far side of the canal looking for them. People race past.

The sting of pepper spray on the wind hits me, searing my nostrils and eyes. The police have trapped perhaps fifty people on the opposite side of the canal—just where we were. Even from twenty meters away it is a raw and spicy wind. I am already moving, heart pounding in my chest, attempting innocence and anonymity, suddenly alone and vulnerable, unsure of who or what is awaiting on this side, or what will happen to those trapped behind.

I begin walking, pulling my mask off, heading up the canal where there seems to be space between the police. People sit eating baguettes and drinking wine on benches, watching the spectacle of a mass of black-clad people trapped between two lines of stormtroopers. I am calling my brick, hearing garbled messages from them. They have got across.

Later that evening, we are outside la Generale—the huge warehouse space the local squatters keep on lock-and-key for when they need a performance space. Inside is rammed to the rafters with smiling, laughing, leaping, euphoric crowds of people, leaping and stomping as the famous brass band from the march hammers through a borderline violent version of Bella Ciao. Every song they have played, every refrain, for the last hour, and even in the pauses between, the cry can be heard like a war chant:

Ah-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalist a-ha! Anti! Anti-capitalist!

We are drunk and exhausted, our eyes still stinging from the pepper spray, greeting survivors from the kettle on the canal as they drift back, grinning with giddy relief.

“They kept us there maybe an hour. I had a backpack full of equipment. I had to throw it into the canal. But still, after one hour, they let us all go. No arrests.”

“I guess they know it’s over.”

“For now.”

We are drinking cans of Maximator—11% strength beer that sizzles like gasoline in our stomachs and fires up our exhilarated chatter.

“So we did it. Somehow we did it. 60 people on the streets ready to stand between the cops and 20,000 protesters like some kind of weird human condom.”

“It could have been so different. I’m bloody relieved that nothing happened,” Oak is saying. “That talk they gave us about raising our hands up with our fingers bent so the truncheons didn’t break them. I was, like, God, what have we gotten into?”

“Yeah. I guess it was all fine. But was it enough? I mean, I have friends at home who would be horrified to know I was part of a ‘de-escalation team’. They are the guys who believe that non-violence protects the state, and that if we really wanted change, we have to fight for it on the streets.”

“But if you have a riot, you won’t have all these families and this creative atmosphere.”

“Maybe it would have been different, but also they would have just demonised the whole thing as being about ‘leftwing extremists hijacking the peaceful march’. The same old narrative. My biggest worry is how complicit we have become in working with the cops, the politicians, the whole status quo.”

“It’ll all ripple out, George. It’ll all ripple out somehow.”

We smile, then laugh a little more as the brass band chunters inside and the anti-capitalists a-ha! away. Through the windows, I can see faces beaming with delirious exhaustion, dancing away with stomping feet and fists pumping the air, and I am relieved it isn’t all broken heads and handcuffs and eyes red raw from tear gas. I suck at the Maximator, retch at how flat it is, and suddenly feel my legs wobble.

“Shall we?”

We round up our little crew for la Petite Maison and head off into the Parisian night. Flashing blue lights illuminate the boulevards, casting sapphire shadows against the tall trees and art deco facades of the buildings.

As we pass the orange-and-yellow frontage of a McDonald’s, Oak suddenly squeals and runs ahead, laughing but flustered.

“There was a guy! There was a guy wanking in the McDonald’s!”

I can’t help but look, and there indeed sat at the little shelf-bar in the window are two kettle-faced men, leering at us as we pass. One has his tracksuit pants open, and is pulling with frenzied focus at an unimpressive lump of meat under the tabletop. He is staring straight out, and for a moment I wonder if he is looking at us, or his own reflection.

I smile at him, hawk a huge ball of phlegm out of my throat, and spit it at the window. It splatters satisfyingly right at his eye level and slides down, a green nugget of sap and gristle. He pauses, looking shocked, and I flip him a rigid middle finger, before darting off down the street after the others.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the lackeys of capitalism,” I sneer. “They’re all fucking perverts.”

oneslutriot. Bank of No Money, Depford, London, 2016. Spray paint and acrylic, 100% stolen or recycled materials.


Joanne Rixon Interview: “The Complaint of All Living Things”

Michael: In the first of what will hopefully be many such interviews, editorial staffer Johannes Punkt and I worked together to come up with questions for Joanne Rixon about her Reckoning 2 story, “The Complaint of All Living Things”.

Johannes: What’s your own favourite national park, and why?

Joanne: I like this question, it’s unexpectedly tricky! It depends if you mean strictly National Parks only, or all public lands. My favorite National Park is Joshua Tree National Park in California. For one thing, I have an impossible fondness for deserts, probably due to reading The Blue Sword multiple times at an impressionable age, and Joshua Tree is quintessential desert. But also, it’s so close to LA, a major metropolitan area known for poor air quality—but there was a time when I was there, alone in the desert at night, and it was so quiet, and I looked at the sky and it felt like the very first time I’d ever seen stars.

If we’re talking all public lands, though, I’ve got to say my favorite is Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, in particular the southern, Snoqualmie end of it. It covers a lot of area, including some impressive mountains, but a lot of it looks like this. Which is to say, heartrendingly beautiful. I grew up on unceded Snoqualmie Indian Tribe land and most of my memories of childhood are set in the shadow of those mountains. In my family we’re all settlers/colonists, which makes it complicated for me to claim these forests as my home. I have no right to it, but I think it has a right to me.

Photo by Matt Antonioli on Unsplash

Johannes: Your story feels so searingly, hauntingly personal, and when I read it I am reminded of how the personal stories play a role in the very big stories of humanity vis-a-vis the earth. Is that what you set out to say, when you started writing this?

Joanne: Well I hope it doesn’t spoil the story to admit that that wasn’t what I was thinking about at all. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how humans relate to the natural world, because I reject natural-unnatural dualism. Which, ha, sounds incredibly pretentious. All I mean is that I believe that all things are equally natural—smartphones made by humans are as natural as bird nests or termite towers. The human belief that we are separate from or superior to nature is an illusion that comes from certain religious beliefs that I don’t share. We ARE the earth. Which, okay, was partly what I was writing about.

My main artistic goal, though, when I started writing, was to interrogate the idea of recovery from injury. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about how Western medicine encourages people to see the uninjured body as the pristine, default state we should always be striving to return to. In my experience that’s neither possible nor desirable—because it’s impossible, it just means living in denial and sometimes incurring further illness or injury. In some ways the sea star near the beginning of the story is the central image I was thinking of—the sea star has been almost bisected, and is regenerating into a much different creature than it was before. It isn’t recovering—it’s becoming something entirely new.

So if I have a message about environmentalism or whatever (and maybe I don’t?) it’s only that, yes, there is damage, and yes, we go forward. One way or another.

Johannes: Your protagonist-narrator feels so strikingly human, strong and weak at the same time, and I wonder: how do you decide what to tell explicitly and what to imply, of backstory and character and everything?

Joanne: Oh, I don’t know. To be perfectly honest, most of the time I guess at what will feel more dramatic, and then look back at what I’ve written and see if I like it? I’m not a very methodical writer, have no formal training, and go through many revisions of everything I write.

I will say, one thing I do is I try to find the one perfect detail that can be explained in a way that will evoke the feeling of the whole. In this story in particular details were very important tools, because the narrator has forgotten the larger whole. Only the feeling of it remains. The reader doesn’t know what’s true because the narrator herself largely doesn’t know.

This is a good technique when writing trauma, in particular, because it allows you to show, e.g., medical abuse right there on screen without actually traumatizing your reader. You just focus on the color of the nurse’s shoes, and that allows the reader to know—to feel—but also to not know. And this makes it bearable.

Michael: What happens when a story takes a deeply innate human process and magnifies it, the way you’ve done here with forgetting and pain? How does it work on the reader, how do you want it to work?

Joanne: I don’t know if I can say whether it works or doesn’t. I think each reader probably has a different experience? But I can tell you that what I was trying to do here was—maybe I would say, focus rather than magnification.

Pain is an interesting thing to write about because of the way our minds falter when processing it. A healthy human brain can never quite remember pain. You can remember the color of the blood, the feeling of overwhelming panic, but not the sensation of pain. Even if your brain is damaged by the long-term presence of unrelenting chronic pain, you don’t really remember pain the way you remember other things. You remember, say, how angry and humiliated you were when you couldn’t get up off the floor, but you can’t remember the body-feeling of the pain that pinned you on the ground. The closest I’ve come is trying to remember and instead inducing the pain in my body in the present moment—giving myself a headache trying to remember a headache.

I’ve been fascinated by this quirk of memory for a long time, perhaps morbidly fascinated. There’s this thing that happens when you have chronic pain, and pain is in every memory, but you can’t remember pain—your memory gets weird. I wanted to take that forgetting and reverse it, or duplicate it, or see the underside of it, both because I want to understand it better myself and because I want other people to also make an attempt at understanding.

Part of it is the technical challenge, you know: can I make people remember something it isn’t possible to remember? But also, many of my stories are about pain or memory or both, because I’m a very selfish writer. I like to write about myself, I like to force my readers to think like a person with chronic pain for a few minutes as they read. Ideally it might draw a person toward self-reflection or a small dab of enlightenment, but to be perfectly honest I’m also happy if my readers get a headache trying to remember a headache. I just don’t want to be alone in it.

I don’t know if this answers your question. Also, I should include the caveat (because my mother has the link to this story!) that that makes it sound like Complaint is autobiographical, but it definitely isn’t. It draws on my personal experiences with pain, but only in a general way. Except I have actually camped at Padre Island National Seashore, that part is true!

Michael: Joanne and Johannes, thank you both very much, this has been great.

The Shale Giants

We slide sideways.

You think you would see us, as big as we are, looming over the landscape, but the shale giants know how to slip quietly, one plane against another, and be gone into the fog. We like fog as we like all quiet things. Fog also comes in layers, and that makes us feel safe, at home, almost as safe as if we were still in our burrows.

We wait for our friends, our own kind. We come from slow waters, deep waters, quiet waters. Our friends take a long time to accrue, and too much pressure makes them hard, angry, someone else. Too much pressure makes us someone else.

To stay ourselves, we stand on each other’s shoulders. One upon another, we persevere.

For years the pressure that changes us happened accidentally, and we took it in good part, as we took everything in good part. There were no rituals to join with us, no offerings left for us. The turning of the year means something to the water, to the plants. Shale has no season.

We would take and turn the tiny creatures into parts of ourselves, in the quiet of time, in the seasons that meant nothing. We embraced and enveloped them, we encompassed them. No one gave them to us, but we sometimes offered them back. Sometimes we shared. Silently, with wonder. That was how we knew you warm living creatures best: through sharing the tiny past ones.

But now.

Now we have something you want.

You have taken note of our breath, you have breathed it in like gold, and you want it for your own. We want to slip sideways. You want to push us aside, steal our breath, set it alight in our lungs.

You want us to crackle and burn.

And we will burn.

We become something else when we are pressed, something hard but no less giant. Something that will not slip aside for you, and that will not slip into place for you. All of our deep waters have taught us, our cool waters have made us, and if you steal our breath, we will steal yours.

We are many-layered, and we are better than you at learning from each other, at standing on each other’s shoulders. We are vast. We want to be quiet. The thing we want most is quiet. The thing you want most to take from us is our quiet.

The shale giants have been. The shale giants will be. The turning of the seasons still means nothing to us. We can wait. If you want us to be hard and cracked and broken, we can turn those edges on you.

It may be time for you to think of offerings after all.