Aesthetically Pleasing Mulch
Hell, we might even be able to communicate.
It’s been a low-key, fast-draining couple weeks. I don’t have much to show for them, and, given the season, I’m okay with that. I’ve been puttering, indulging in video games, staying off the TL and getting my daily dose of Posts from Discord chats instead of The Feed. It’s the time of year when quittin’ time really sets in, and anything worth doing feels like it can wait for January.
My friend Chuck covered this well in his own excellent newsletter. We’re mammals, and mammals often hiberate, or at least slow down, when the sun gets far and cold. This year, with a new variant on the march, there doesn’t seem to be much point in resisting the lethargy. All of which adds a sheen of unreality to the short days, at least for me. I’ve felt reflective, but also a bit removed, as though the stakes of my choices feel a little more abstract than usual, a little more like dream-stakes.
So this newsletter has a little less stuff than usual, but I take my time with what I did include. I offer more framing on the concept of climate repair, go deep on Material Reality a.k.a. my garden column, and find a couple angles to touch on the perennial problem of connecting with The Other.
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Works in Process
“Boomtown” —— With a flurry of final tightening and plot point expanding, this collaboration with Corey J. White got out the door to an Aussie call about energy futures. One thing you learn writing for contests and calls is that, at least in speculative short fiction, 5,000 words is actually a really awkward number to write for. You wouldn’t think it would make a difference, but my experience is that 3k and 6k are more natural maximums. The amount of plot I tend to bite off when shooting for 5k always needs another 500 words to bring home. Nonetheless, excited for this story, and mostly confident that we avoided that sort of lumpiness.
The Remainder —— After taking a break to work on the above and then feeling a little stuck for a week after, I’m back working on my COVID/Rapture/X-Files novel. Just passed 60k words and 200 pages, which I think officially makes this the longest thing I’ve ever written. When I got back into the groove I decided to skip over the unwritten climax and fill in some of the denouement. It’s my first time jumping around like that in this book (this has been, for the most part, pure pantsing), but I think I know the end beats well enough now to use this to build momentum. A good strategy I’ve heard before is to keep writing/rewriting the easiest thing left to work on, until the hard bits you’ve been avoiding are also the easiest (meaning only) bits left. At this point winter lethargy is setting in, so I don’t know if I’ll have the whole draft done by end of the year, but January seems doable.
Untitled Carbon Removal Story —– Lately I’ve been getting involved with the OpenAir Collective, a volunteer research/advocacy network working on carbon dioxide removal tech/policy. As I’ve written before, cutting carbon emissions to halt warming is vital, but that’s only half the project. We’ll also need what I call “climate repair,” mostly through cleaning up the 300+ gigatons of CO2 waste we’ve dumped into the atmosphere. This week’s devastating Midwest tornados are just the latest climate disaster to show how dangerous and intolerable 1.1C warming turns out to be, and wherever we stabilize (if we stabilize) will likely be orders of magnitude worse. So, in anticipation of that next great civilizational effort that must follow the energy transition, OpenAir is developing protocols and legislation to help nudge technologies like direct air capture (DAC) to scale. Since carbon removal has already shown up in several of my stories (including my upcoming book), folks at OpenAir have asked me to write a short piece of policy fiction to help illustrate and narrativize the future industry they’re envisioning. This is still in the early stages, but I’m excited to be getting started. Check out OpenAir’s ongoing webinar series if you want to get up to speed on this stuff.
“Under This Rock” —— Once you remove carbon dioxide waste from the atmosphere or ocean, you’ve got to put it somewhere. CO2 storage/disposal is a pretty interesting part of the climate repair puzzle, since gases can be rather slippery to keep track of and we need to keep the carbon out of the air for at least a century (preferably a millennium) to not just be spinning our wheels. We can imagine using a bunch of clean energy to turn CO2 back into liquid fuels, or putting carbon into products, or growing and monitoring big dense forests and grasslands that store carbon in soil and biomass. But very likely a big chunk of carbon waste (say, about the size of Lake Michigan) will need to go back where it came from: underground.
The inspiration for this story came from a passing comment during one of my early sustainability classes at ASU. There is some worry that fracking operations are going to ruin some of the very geological formations where we might safely store captured carbon. Now that I’ve learned a bit more about the topic, I’m not so sure this scarcity is a real problem, but nonetheless I like the idea of future climate repairists and hold-out fossil extractivists struggling for control of big underground rocks.
So that’s what this story is: a quick, western-style showdown between a rogue Wyoming mayor and unrepentant frackers. It’s got a certain action-movie verve I quite like, with the kind of ending I must’ve been in a deep writing fugue to come up with. Oh, and the “subtle suction of the thirsty reeds” references a real discovery of a “biological tide.” You can read it over at the Canadian cli-fi mag Little Blue Marble.
One of the first pieces of art I bought, and one of the only originals I own, I first saw this on display at a kava bar in Berkeley. Kava is a calming psychoactive drink made from the root of a plant native to some islands in the Pacific. You drink it out of a coconut shell, and it tastes like dirt. I didn’t much dig the kava——apparently it’s the kind of drug one gets more sensitive to over successive uses, rather than less, making it pretty meh when you first try it——but I did dig the art. Over the course of several weeks I kept thinking about this piece and the shattered sci-fi world it implied. Eventually I went back to the bar asked to buy it.
The artist, Kelly Porter, turned out to live right around the corner. He came by while I drank a complimentary bowl of kava, had me sign paperwork, then showed me his studio. In terms of interests and inspiration, Kelly is very much a kindred spirit. His place was full of sci-fi novels (I think I still have a Greg Egan book of his I borrowed), and we talked at length about Le Guin in particular. I sent him some of my fiction, and a few months later he did a piece based on a novella I’d been working on.
There is something very potent about encountering art, feeling like it talks to you, and then later finding out that the creator was indeed speaking your language——indeed, your niche subcultural dialect. It’s brief, ephemeral proof that human beings really can share some kind of conceptual common ground. Hell, we might even be able to communicate.
The summer is well and truly gone, which means we can safely plant a patch of greens without fear that they’ll get scorched and go bitter. There’s nothing quite like the downshifted luxury of being able to walk into the backyard and pick a salad fresh off the plants. We’re going for lettuce, bok choy, spinach, and kale. They’ll be coming just in time, too, as the greens we’ve been growing in our little hydroponic Aerogarden have started to bolt or go scraggly.
We last did greens in our garden bags, but this year those are all occupied with herbs, tomatoes, and apparently pumpkins. So C resolved to set up a little no-till bed, marked out with pieces of brick and shattered breezeblock I long ago salvaged from the alley. These we had to move to a new, sunnier location, as our previous lettuce patch is now being shaded by a young chinaberry tree growing out of the stump of its parent. The old chinaberry, once the biggest feature of our backyard, succumbed to the heat a couple summers ago and had to be cut down. I was very torn about this, since chinaberries are non-native ornamentals and deeply annoying———they drop these toxic, rock-hard berries everywhere, which the birds don’t seem to like and therefore litter the ground indefinitely. But a tree’s a tree, and any time you lose a full grown one it feels like something is going wrong.
So C moved the marker blocks into the sun and laid a sheet of burlap over the patchy grass. Then we tossed mulch down and spread that around. We have a neighbor from down the alley, N, who has a beautiful shady backyard with chickens, and who somehow ended up with a big pile of mulch out behind her back wall. She’s had to put up signs to keep the city from making off with her mulch, but she’s told us we can use it whenever we want. So we made a couple trips to the pile with buckets and rakes, masked up against the dust. Once our mulch layer was down, we shoveled on soil, a mix of Lowe’s-bought bags and our own maggot-chewed compost. C planted the seeds (scattered for the lettuce, rows for the rest), while I hoofed it back down the alley for more mulch.
Around the time I was spreading that on top of the seeded soil, N came by. N is an older woman originally from Europe, who has lived in the neighborhood for decades while teaching physics at ASU. If we are out back, she always says hi when she walks the alley looking for weeds to feed her hens———unlike the rest of our neighbors our backyard wall only comes up chest-high, so we see everyone who passes. It’d been a minute since we’d chatted with N, so we invited her in and explained our scheme for the lettuce patch, mentioning that we’d just been down making use of her mulch pile.
“Oh but you don’t want to use that for a vegetable garden,” N said. “It’s got eucalyptus in it.”
For the uninitiated, eucalyptus trees basically wage chemical warfare on any plants and other organisms that try to come close. Their oils have potent antimicrobial properties. This means they make great mulch for putting around trees to keep the weeds off or for edging the house to ward off scorpions, but you don’t want them on your lettuce patch because they’ll suppress the topsoil microbiome that helps your seeds sprout and grow.
So C and I internally groan. Upon closer examination, it did indeed have that telltale smell and fibrous bits. We’d even had a discussion about whether there might be eucalyptus in the mulch, since we knew N had previously had such a tree taken down and turned to chips. Somehow we had talked ourselves out of the possibility, figuring that all that eucalyptus mulch must have been disposed of long ago and that N would’ve mentioned eucalyptus previously when encouraging us to use her pile. A combination of crossed wires and pandemic time dilation.
Luckily we hadn’t watered yet, so there was still time to rake off the top layer of poison mulch before it spoiled our lettuce dreams. The bottom layer we could probably leave, since the big worry was from eucalyptus oil soaking down into the soil. So while C did that, I went back down the alley with N, who explained that she had access to a different, non-eucky pile via another neighbor of hers. We said hi to the chickens and chicks, extracted a wheelbarrow from her jungle of a yard, and set off further down the alley.
N has a clucking disapproval of how our neighbors and the city treat our shared alley———chopping down plants while not cleaning up trash. As we walked she picked up a couple plastic water bottles and went to a random trash bin to dispose of them. Lo and behold, the bin was full of beautiful yard waste: armfuls of lush ornamental sage and a big trash bag of dried leaves and bougainvillea flowers. This was not the mulch pile N had been steering me towards, which I never saw, but nonetheless it fit our needs perfectly. So we loaded up the wheelbarrow, dumped the sage on N’s mulch pile to dry, and rolled the rest of our find back to my place.
Picking out loose greens and bougainvillea thorns, explaining our lucky strike to C, discussing the possibility of taking on some hens when N orders new chicks in the spring, the day of material reality seemed to take on a surreal, serendipitous quality. Had N not come by just in time, we very easily could’ve ruined our lettuce patch with eucalyptus oil, spent months scratching our heads about why nothing we planted was growing. Instead we came out ahead, with the random find in the trash bin feeling oddly like a folktale’s lumpy meander.
It was the kind of narrative detour that often gets polished out of a work of fiction, but that real life is nonetheless filled with. Especially when one spends unstructured time with people who (by virtue of age, class, race, creed, geographic origin, or political tribe) occupy a version of the world somewhat different from one’s own———as is the case with N. I think we’ve all been there: first dates that end up in places you would never think to go alone; weird airport restaurants encountered on layovers with friends you made on the plane; bars and cafes and churches and office block lobbies shared with strangers while hiding from cops or sheltering from a storm. In those go-anywhere moments, the absurd details of our material world that we often glaze over suddenly pop into our awareness, perhaps because, for a little while at least, we have to negotiate a shared reality with an Other.
We’ve started to get sprouts poking out of the lettuce bed, and scraping off the eucalyptus mulch we’d already used on our garden bags has brought some new vigor to the plants had that managed to sprout there———mostly other aromatics. So I’m hopeful. The jackpot mulch is full of nutritious pollen and petals, and it looks great, surprisingly colorful. It’s aesthetically pleasing mulch.