This week we are showcasing a few of the finalists of the Our Waters, Our Future writing contest, which sought short stories depicting positive futures for water and people in south-central Wisconsin. The winning story was published in Madison Magazine; read it online or in their June print edition.
The views reflected in this story do not reflect the views of the Water Sustainability and Climate project nor the UW-Madison in general.
Story by Erik Beach
(David Freeman’s journal, April, 2016)
Spring is such a beautiful season! To get back to the alive earth after its season of rest. I started preparing the garden along the railroad tracks today. It feels so good to be outside, working with plants in the sunshine. Sometimes it seems like I never was working that desk job that I left a few years ago—to get away from computer screens and out into the dirt!
George Freeman put down his grandfather’s journal. It was the springtime of 2070, and George was back in his childhood home in Madison for the first time in six years because his father Ken was dead.
The ion fence crackled, and George looked out the window into the bright artificial light outside. The fence bordered what was left of a lake (he didn’t know which lake, as after the Final Contamination, everyone had stopped using the lakes’ old names—it seemed easier that way, to forget how they once were). The ion fence had a visual screen of course, which blocked a view of the real Contamination. George wondered how many people knew about, or had not allowed themselves to just forget, the yellow toxic mist swirling over the lake on the other side of the fence.
Opening the journal in his lap, George thought about how his grandfather had written about his love for the lakes. George wished he could have met his grandfather. As a teenager, he’d found David’s old journal in a dusty box in the back of a hall closet. As his father Ken had rejected his own father David’s views, George was sure his father would have made him throw away his grandfather’s journal, so George never mentioned it. In contrast to David’s love of nature, Ken had always been interested in technology, in spending hours taking machines apart, building first with crude toy blocks and mechanical parts before delving into his passion for chemistry and the elemental building blocks of nature.
George put the journal into his bag and started getting ready to meet his older sister Caroline. When he’d arrived in Madison yesterday, she’d met him at the city electro- border after he’d traveled the old-fashioned way—hitching rides with transport trucks or the occasional passenger bus still in service—thousands of miles south. Caroline still looked like he remembered her: all-natural straight blonde hair, everything else about her so artificially put together, a perfectly engineered appearance. She commanded the elements of style, George thought, the same way she commanded the technology start-up company she’d founded.
For all their differences, George had appreciated Caroline making the effort to summon him home, itself no easy task. For the past six years, George had been living near Hudson Bay in one of the Islands of the Real scattered across the globe. A few tiny Islands were all that existed of the old natural world. They were created about 20 years ago by a handful of eco-billionaire eccentrics, when the looming Final Contamination was actually in full swing. The Island creators had detonated huge border zones and erected bubble protective shields around the nature preserves. In the Hudson Bay Island, only a few hundred people were allowed in by lottery, but the price of admission was giving up any electronic communication inside, as well as any other technologies beyond the level of the Amish. For George, the ability to swim in the lakes, to be able to just boil the natural water to drink over a campfire, made it all worthwhile. So it was only on his monthly supply run to the outpost just beyond the bubble shield gate that he received the message to call his sister Caroline on the outpost’s antiquated videophone. When he did so, her static image crackled to life on the tiny screen. Her could barely make out her words over the static: “George, you have to come home. Dad is dead, and Mom’s coming back.”
George’s mother, Esther, had been away from Madison even longer than he had. A space pioneer, she would be making a much longer journey through space (though a shorter journey in time) back to Madison, a direct beam portal from the seventh Space Station to the Upper Midwest Central Terminal. While his parents’ relationship was never particularly harmonious, it wasn’t anything as irrational as emotions or feelings that had caused them to separate, but rather their different scientific worldviews. His mother had pleaded with his father to join her in starting a new human civilization in space, but Ken Freeman insisted on remaining in Madison, insisted on trying to repair the damaged earth rather than simply abandoning it. Of course he had—Madison was where his lab was located.
George felt his anger rising, recalling how his father seemed to love his lab more than anything, more than anyone. His father believed with absolute faith that the answers produced by his lab could solve any of the world’s problems. When the Final Contamination began, George’s parents had been on the frontlines of ensuring human survival. But by the late 2060s, humans were established in space for decades and had been surviving in artificial environments on earth for about the same time period, ever since the natural world finally began to disappear. So it wasn’t a question of humans going extinct, like a few people had worried over (or others had cheered for) back in the early years of this century. No, George thought, it was more like a matter of pride: of Ken being so sure he and all of humanity could invent a technology that would put nature back the way it used to be.
Instead, his father’s attempts to do so had killed him. Ken Freeman, the prize-winning chemist and highly decorated professor, insisted that the knowledge from his university lab would be able to return the water to its natural state, last seen decades ago. His resolve was so unbreakable that he didn’t acknowledge his miracle chemical was instead breaking down his own body. He had absolute faith he could make his chemical process work, but ran out of time before his constant exposure to it in the lab exhausted his biological body.
(David Freeman’s journal, June, 2016)
Will people in Madison just miss the reality of all the issues around water? Will they just believe that their water must be good, because they all care about the environment and display yard signs showing how much they support clean lakes? In the past few years, Madison is finally starting to see the realities of racial disparity—some of the country’s worst statistics (which, in a nation with the level of racism as America, is saying something). Everyone believes it couldn’t happen here—drought and worrying about water is for places like California and Texas; not having safe drinking water is for poor black cities like Flint. If we don’t start to see more of the realities with water, those types of problems and more could be here, very soon.
Now George was going to meet Caroline, to go to their father’s lab. He ducked into the waiting taxi pod with Caroline inside. After greeting her, George asked, “How’s Mom?”
“Not good. Even with all of her pleading for him to join her in space, she never thought it would end up like this.”
The taxi pod passed what must have been a beautiful park in George’s grandfather’s day. The old nature areas still had a certain feel, no matter how carefully people tried to hide them behind visual screens, to cover up the truth. It was what he’d read in his grandfather’s journal, of people wanting to build over the top of Native American burial mounds—as much as people hoped they could just ignore the past, it still stuck around.
Now they were entering the university sector, metallic buildings towering into the fake clouds.
“You know,” Caroline said, “it sounds kind of crazy, like she was cracking up or something, but yesterday Mom told me that Dad had sent her some cryptic message, that he wanted her to do all she could to convince you to follow his last instructions.”
“Yeah right,” mumbled George. Not only did he have to come back from his natural Island to a dead, artificial place, but his father also probably left him some instructions about something even more artificial.
At the top of the Chemistry building, George and Caroline entered their father’s department. A tall man in an immaculate bright white lab coat greeted them.
“I’m Kazu, I worked with your father. He was very specific in telling me to make sure I got this to you,” he said as he walked them to George’s father’s sparse desk, windows with an unscreened view overlooking one of the long-contaminated lakes.
“Here you go,” said Kazu, handing George an envelope. George sank into a chair, and began to read:
I know I don’t have much time left alive, and I don’t hold out any hope of seeing you before I die—that’s OK, I don’t blame you for leaving. These final stages have made me think that maybe you’re right. Maybe the only hope we have to restore part of nature is by looking back to nature itself for solutions. I still believe it’s possible to bring back the lakes here, but in a different way than I tried with the chemicals. Technology and science have sent us to space, but maybe only a science of nature can help us now.
Almost no other scientists know about this, but an old friend of mine passed along some information about an independent researcher doing experiments in Hudson Bay, where you live. It’s a type of bioremediation, like the work Paul Stametz was doing with mushrooms at the beginning of this century. This scientist’s name is Phillipa, and she’s working with algae that can decontaminate water back to its natural state. Here are the coordinates of where you can find her cabin in Hudson Bay. You may not ever want to come back here, but you also might be the only person who could bring back that experiment to this lab and help people across the globe get back some of their natural water. I hope you’ll consider it.
As they entered the taxi pod to return to Caroline’s, George thought about what was left for the world. He knew he didn’t want to live in space, but even for people like his mother, it seemed like the reality was not the same as the fantasy. Sure, he could go back to his Island, but if the rest of the world didn’t get better, the barriers that kept the Island natural might fail. Natural water should be possible again for everyone, not just the lucky, crazy few like him, he thought. He wouldn’t try to do it in the artificial way of his father, but he was starting to admire more his father’s determination to bring back natural water. He’d return to the Island and go look for Phillipa, and if he could, he’d try to help bring her algae back to Madison.
(Epilogue: Spring 2076, George’s journal)
Just got back from a swim in Lake Mendota. Parts of it are still at unsafe contamination levels, but only to the point of my grandfather’s time—the algae have been so successful in just a few years. Crazy to think that it’s been 300 years since this country was founded in 1776. Would they have ever imagined then that water would be a problem? I hope humans and the natural earth are still around to see what wonders and problems exist in the year 2376.
Erik Beach works as a tutor and in gardening/landscaping. He grew up on a family farm south of Madison and has lived in Madison for about four years. He enjoys the lakes and all of the natural areas in Madison.