This story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, a climate-fiction contest from Fix.
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Augusta learned not to take worms for granted.
When she moved to the project grounds, she had always felt that worms were something that turned up when it rained and got squashed and made the sidewalk slightly smelly. The idea of a worm swap would have sounded surreal — the idea that she would find herself at one, ridiculous.
And yet there she was in the cool morning of the San Jose outposts, standing over a series of buckets, peering skeptically. The soil in them was rich, dark, wet; even Augusta could see that it was better than the dry grayish stuff she had been divesting of its large chunks of concrete. The reddish brown worms writhed ecstatically through it.
“They’re not Alabama jumpers, are they?” she said. “Vicki said we shouldn’t bring any of those back, they’re bad for the lizards.”
Reuben nodded slowly. Augusta waited. She had learned to wait for Reuben, as she had learned to appreciate worms. He was from North Dakota, one parent from Mandan and the other from the Standing Rock Reservation, and talked like he had the time to spend all day to get where he was going. “Not Alabama jumpers,” he said, when both Augusta and the owner of the bucket of worms were ready to choke with impatience. “We can have some of those, but not too many. They aerate. These are mostly different kinds of nightcrawlers.”
“Good enough,” said Reuben, finally looking up. “Depends what she wants for them.” Augusta bit back a sigh. This was the cue for Reuben and the woman with the bucket of worms to bargain for another half hour. It was astonishing to her that people with so little could spend so much time arguing about it — and the haggling over the worms was nothing compared to the time she and Reuben had spent back at the project, determining what they had to trade.
Augusta wandered off to look at the worm-seller’s farm. Reuben acknowledged this with a nod, silently agreeing to meet up later. She wished that she could take notes on the spot, pages and pages of notes, on what was offered, what the other people at the meetup looked like, all colors but mostly sun-lined, all shapes and sizes, far more ages than she had expected. How the burnt-out remnants of the bulldozed houses framed and outlined the space they could set up in. How the farm had adapted itself around the wreckage. But that would blow her cover. She contented herself with trying to remember as much as she could until she was back in the privacy of her cubicle.
When the buses stopped going to the cheaper housing in southern Santa Clara, Augusta had to leave Stanford, scholarships notwithstanding. Fuel cost too much to pick up diminished handfuls of struggling people from the outskirts — but fuel cost too much for anyone in her neighborhood to own a car, either.
Her advisor had shrugged. “To be honest, journalism degrees aren’t worth what they used to be,” she’d said. “If you really want this — if you still really want this, even now — ” And she’d peered at Augusta to make sure the meaning was clear. Now, after the Big One, and all the Little Ones with it. Now, since the market had gone haywire. Now, with the weather doing whatever strange things it might, in some random order that no longer resembled the clear wet season/dry season of Northern California past. All the giant pile of now.
Augusta had only ever wanted to be a journalist. To tell the truth where it was most needed, she thought. “I still do.”
Her advisor had nodded. “Your main chance is to come up with your own story. To research and write it, freelance. Something eye-catching, something with a great pitch. That’s how careers are made these days. Like in the frontier days, I guess. Show them what you can do. And then do another. And another.”
How she was to eat while she was “showing them” was left as an exercise for the student.
Augusta might have given up and taken an indenture with one of the corporations who hung around and picked up young people hungry for contracts, if not for Skyler. Skye had been her freshman roommate, and they’d tolerated each other amiably, Skye’s passion of the week and Augusta’s cool detachment rubbing up against each other well enough to live together, if not a friendship of ages.
So when Skye said she was going to join a soil reclamation project in the South Bay, she didn’t expect Augusta to offer to join her — but she didn’t seem surprised, either. Other options weren’t thick on the ground.
Skye had lasted a week. Augusta was still there.
She had not expected a bulldozed housing development with shards of McMansions around her. She wasn’t sure what she had expected. Something idyllic and green and earnest. Something bucolic.
They had the earnest part, at least.
The Hayward hills had always been prone to fire, but when the housing developments dwindled to a few people, most of the yards went unwatered. An earthquake triggered a huge fire, killing 30 of the people still living in the developments, including five children under school age. Horrified, the South Bay suburban governments vowed that they wouldn’t go the way of the East Bay. The largely abandoned communities were evacuated and bulldozed. Property values had fallen far enough that no one wanted to maintain the rest.
Enter Vicki and Reuben and the rest of their group, gathered around them as they worked. The bulldozers left depleted soil and giant masses of concrete in their wake — plus invasive species and the debris that didn’t quite make it to the dump trucks. It was a mess. It was good solid work for as many people as they could get to do it. By the time Augusta got there, the first patch of soil had even been restored enough to make a large credible vegetable garden.
Vicki, the broad-shouldered, dreadlocked head of the project, had put them to work hauling chunks of concrete in wheelbarrows. The project gave them sledgehammers, work gloves, and a pep talk; all power was human power when they could manage it. Their job — alongside half a dozen other project members — was to pull chunks of concrete and toss them into a designated shell of a basement down the block. The remaining soil could then be worked, fertilized — restored, as much as possible, to the fertile farmland that had predated the flawed development.
It was a great theory, except that it involved Augusta herself hauling concrete for hours at a time. Despite the work gloves and boots she’d brought with her from Stanford, she ended each day bruised and exhausted. She barely had the energy to make notes on her handheld for her story — and yet if not in-depth investigative reporting, what was she there for?
In the early days, she hoped for a scandal. Hypocrisy would be best — environmentalists who used polluting technology for literally anything, that was always a popular way to make the public feel better about itself. If not that, a titillating exposé of latter-day hippie life would do. Orgies around bonfires, drug use, sordid abuse of petty power — that kind of story was easy to spread on social media. It would make a name for her.
After two weeks of crushing labor with never an orgy in sight, not even a bonfire, and considerably less drug use than she’d seen at Stanford, Augusta found that the kind of story she was planning shifted. Not to a puff piece, she assured herself. Not becoming the soil reclamation PR department. Just … not raking the same kind of muck.
She began to wonder whether the people who came up with the term “muckraking” had ever spent much time working soil with a rake. It sounded so easy until you did it.
That night Augusta had finished with her notes, or what she could make herself do of her notes, and was lying on her bed in her narrow cubicle, staring at the ceiling. The person in the next cubicle was playing the guitar, badly. The A string was slightly sharp, and it threw everything off.
It was, she thought, the closest thing to a scandal she’d uncovered: the idea that someone might have paid for guitar lessons and only gotten this little value out of it.
A tap on her door interrupted both her thoughts and the guitar noodling. It was Vicki. “Just wanted to check in and see how you feel like you’re settling in with us, since you decided to stay when your friend left.”
Augusta put a social smile on her face. “I’m pretty sore. But it’s going OK, I think.”
“Glad to hear it. If you’ve never used arnica for bruises, we’ve got some in the medicine chest. A lot of new people haven’t, but hauling concrete around …well, you get good at scrapes and bruises.”
“Thanks,” said Augusta. She tried to think what she would say if she was a passionate young environmentalist. “Good worms we got today?”
Vicki grinned. “I think so. It’s a start, at least. We’ll just keep feeding them and see how it goes.”
Even before the weather had shifted, there had been no winter that was a winter, in the South Bay. Rains, and those still came, but no cold snap, nothing that would end the work and send them scuttling inside like the bugs and worms they cultivated.
Augusta found herself still around for the feast they put on for themselves for Labor Day. And more, she found herself trusted. The urge to wander off from Reuben’s slow bargains evaporated, and in its place grew the desire to make sure he was getting the best bargain he could from the sellers of muck and creatures.
As a result, there came a day when she was proud to hear from Vicki, “What great lice, Reuben! Wow, what a find.”
“Not me, Augusta,” said Reuben, smiling at both of them.
Augusta expected Vicki to be surprised. Instead, Vicki beamed at her and said, “See, I knew you’d get the hang of it. We need more helpers. You get that now.”
For a moment Augusta thought Vicki meant herself and other new recruits. But no, she was bending over the box of woodlice, cooing over them in dotty tones.
Augusta wished she could take a picture without tipping them off. This was just the sort of thing that the few people who paid for freelance journalism these days would eat up: the wacky hippies hugging their bugs. She turned away from Vicki’s enthusiasm, feeling a little sour about even thinking of it. Augusta had been excited about the woodlice herself.
Dangers of going undercover, she thought. Self-portrait of the journalist as a louse enthusiast. The important part was whether she could think how to make a reader excited about woodlice. They just looked like any other lightly armored bug, a little scuttling thing she would not want to find under a rock. Except now she would. How did that change? It certainly wasn’t because of the joy and beauty of seeing them up close. Woodlouse encounters would not help.
By Thanksgiving she was instructing a few new recruits on how long their showers could last and where to put their work boots, and Vicki was confiding in her. Augusta tried to maintain a sense of journalistic detachment, but it was very hard when someone she lived with day in and day out showed up with cider and complaints.
“No one takes us seriously,” said Vicki, a great deal less sober than Augusta had ever seen her. She was sitting on the floor of Augusta’s cubicle. Augusta kept the bed for herself, feeling more confident that she wouldn’t spill cider all over it.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said carefully.
Vicki took another deep drink from her bottle of cider, shaking her head.
Augusta ventured, “I think they just … they just don’t know what we’re doing. Why it should matter.”
“No, no. They already think it doesn’t. If you manufacture fertilizer, that’s a valid job,” said Vicki, blowing her bangs off her forehead. “People pay you for it individually. But if you make the soil healthier, if you make the soil live again, it benefits everyone and is paid for by no one. No one wants you to do it, they just want it to happen invisibly. They even resent it when you do.”
“I think …” Augusta hesitated.
“No, go ahead.”
“I think that they only see it as a means to an end. That if you’re making the soil healthier, you should be doing it so that you can grow your crops in your soil. Or even so that you can have a nice garden in your yard. But your neighborhood, your ecosystem … no one is supposed to feel possessive about that. No one is supposed to work for that.”
“Your planet,” Vicki muttered. “Yeah. Yeah.”
“So … how do we change that? What if someone could get the message out to people who just … don’t know what’s going on around them? Who have never had to pay attention?”
“Never pay attention,” Vicki muttered, and Augusta realized that this was probably not the time for a serious discussion.
“We can talk about this in the morning,” said Augusta softly. “I really want to help.”
But when morning came, Vicki — apparently none the worse for wear — was talking about bacteria testing, good bacteria, bad bacteria, balanced bacteria. She seemed focused, and Augusta didn’t want to interfere with that focus.
Or else she was being a coward. But the bacteria question was interesting. She knew that there were quite functional ways to transfer beneficial gut bacteria from one human to another through fecal transplant; would that work with dirt? Or with manure? Was someone near them willing and able to test what bacteria their manure was likely to have?
That night she used her handheld to research it. It took her a few false starts to get to the really useful information about soil — alarming things showed up under her first few searches about poop and bacteria — but eventually she got there. The time she would usually have spent making notes for the story that kept receding beyond her fingertips went into reading about dung tests.
She was riveted.
The next day she brought a plan to the group about how they could get goat manure from a group across the Bay in exchange for some of their own sheep manure, and that would enrich both soil biomes.
“How do you know that?” said Reuben.
“I’ve read papers on it. Eight different papers. I’ll send you the links.”
He nodded with what she hoped was grudging respect, or maybe even just respect. It was hard to tell with Reuben.
Augusta couldn’t afford to get to her parents’ for Christmas and New Year’s, but her college advisor had invited several former students for the holiday supper, and she could catch a ride with one of the newer project members who was originally from Atherton and whose parents didn’t mind dropping her off. The number of electric lights in her advisor’s house now felt jarring, dazzling after the sparse lighting of the soil-project housing.
All the other former students had corporate jobs. Augusta privately wondered whether it was depressing for her advisor to teach journalism but apparently not any journalists. When she was asked about what she was doing, she found herself telling them a great deal about fungi, which ones were wanted and which might be destructive. The other former students put on polite listening faces, but Augusta’s advisor leaned in, chin in hands.
“I never knew you were so interested in mycorrhizal interactions,” Augusta said to her as they were saying goodbye.
“I never knew you were, and that’s the important part.” Her advisor folded her arms and surveyed Augusta. “When you’re ready, I think you’ll have something here. Something a little different, maybe. The science press? No, that’s not it, they already know all this. Something for the general public about the science of it, though. That’s not for every venue, but there are still some. Come to me when you have it ready.”
“Thank you,” said Augusta, and hugged her impulsively. But she spent the ride back wondering if she would ever have anything ready. None of the notes had made their way into prose. She was barely thinking about it at all any more. Was there even a story? Her advisor seemed to think so, but she had gotten much more immersed in the story of what color the dirt was turning, how it felt when a spade bit into it.
Not many days into the new year, Augusta led a group of new volunteers out to their latest site — only to find that it was now across the street from a plastic fence enclosing some of the land they’d spent the most time on.
“What’s that,” said one of the newbies, and Augusta pursed her lips and said, “Run and get Vicki.”
The fence went on for quite some ways, so it took them time to find the notice pinned to it saying exactly who would be parceling off this newly rich land for sale to people who wanted small farms there.
“But they can’t, it’s ours,” said Augusta.
Vicki made a face.
“It is ours, isn’t it?”
“We can talk about this tonight.”
Augusta poured herself into hauling concrete fragments, though she had the seniority for more complex tasks. The sheer physical labor was what she needed to deal with being scared, angry, confused, anything else that came up. Physically exhausted was better than all of those things. Physically exhausted was reliable.
So when she confronted Vicki after dinner, she managed not to do it at the top of her lungs. “Why didn’t you answer me, whether this land is ours? I thought it was ours. I never thought we were doing this for some corporation.”
Vicki’s chin jutted out. “We’re not! And we won’t. It’s just…complicated.”
“How is it complicated?” Complicated sounded like a scandal, and Augusta realized she had stopped wanting one of those months ago.
Reuben put his hand on her shoulder — she had not realized he was even there. “Squatters’ rights,” he said in his usual succinct way.
Augusta turned to Vicki, who nodded. “This land has been abandoned. We checked out the laws, and if you live on land for five years, it’s yours. There are some other rules, but that’s the gist. Especially if you’ve worked it and the previous owners left hazards on it, which you know they did, you’ve seen all the jagged shards of foundations.”
“But they think — “
“They think we won’t have the money for lawyers. So we have to figure out how to have the money for lawyers.” Vicki sighed. “We’ll have to prove that we were living on this whole section of land, not just the narrowly defined area where the buildings are. We’ll have to prove … I mean, I don’t even know why I’m saying this, I don’t know where we’ll get the money, and proof isn’t always the point, sometimes it’s public support. I hate to say it, but it’s true.”
“We all know,” said Reuben.
“I know you do, you’ve all worked so hard, I’m so sorry ….”
Augusta took a deep breath. “What if there was something we could do about public support?”
Both of them looked at her intently. “Absolutely, what?” said Vicki.
“I … I came here under false pretenses. I’m sorry. I’m a journalist — well, a journalism student — well, I wanted to be a journalist. And this was going to be my exposé. Except I got here and there wasn’t anything to expose. And … and I liked it.”
Neither of them responded. Augusta plowed on. “So … my old advisor told me she could help me get a piece published. About this place, about what we’re doing here. She heard me at Christmas, talking about fungus and stuff, and she thought …” Augusta paused to think. “She might have thought all along that a deeper approach would be better. Rather than scandal-mongering. But she let me go figure out what was here, what to talk about. I haven’t written anything yet. I stopped taking notes a few months ago. But if that would help ….”
She held her breath. Would they kick her out for being a spy all along? She would miss the wood lice. She would miss the worms. She would not miss the concrete even a little, but that was sort of the point.
Instead, Reuben nodded. “Sounds good, get the word out.”
“I’m not … I can’t do a PR puff piece,” Augusta said. “No one would accept it, and also I won’t.”
He cocked his head. “No, I wouldn’t expect so.”
“Even if it’s not,” said Vicki. “I mean, of course it’s not, of course you have …” She waved her hand. “Journalistic integrity or whatever. No, this is good work, Augusta, we need this.”
“But I …” Augusta felt like the world was spinning. “I don’t want to launch a journalism career. I thought I did. But I don’t.”
“OK,” said Reuben cheerfully.
“But we need it!”
Vicki and Reuben looked at each other. “Sit down, hon,” said Vicki.
Augusta felt like a kindergartener, but she sat.
“What do you want?” Vicki asked, and apparently something in Augusta’s face made her hold up a hand and say, “No, really, what do you want?”
Augusta crumpled. “I want to mess with worms.”
Reuben laughed. “Good!”
“It’s just … I really like it. I really like the work, I really like seeing the difference from one week to another.”
“OK.” Vicki nodded. “OK, good, keep doing it.”
“But this is not what I thought I was doing!” said Augusta. This time they both laughed, and Augusta scowled at them and tried again. “This is not who I thought I was.”
Vicki patted her shoulder. “I thought I was going to be a doctor.”
“My mother thought I was going to be an electrical engineer,” said Reuben.
“OK, but that’s your mother,” said Vicki, making a face, reminding Augusta that she was still new here and didn’t know all the jokes and references. “Everyone comes from somewhere. We knew that. You weren’t here to sabotage the work. That’s what matters, doing the work. Do you think you’ll be OK if you do both? If you mostly mess with worms but sometimes write stories about us?”
“I … I think so. I can try.”
Vicki grinned. “Hey, that’s all we can ever do.”
The wave of relief that crashed over Augusta was exhausting. She slept past the morning breakfast call for the first time in her months at the project, and through the morning work call too. She woke up dazed and found everyone else already out working. This was her new work, though, so she went and stuck her head in the rain barrel and got down to it.
Or tried. She wanted to write a gentle article about worms in wet soil, about turning manure into gray crumbled earth and watching it come back to life, about the smell of the sweat of a dozen people who had been working for the same things as you. She got the last part in, but it came out angrier. Furious at the labor that was being stolen. Instead of earth, she wrote fire.
She convinced herself to show it to Vicki at supper. Instead of sighing over its failure — or even critiquing it — Vicki nodded. “Good, OK. Write the next one.”
“The next one?”
“Get your pitches out, write the next one. Come on, you knew this would take more than one.”
Augusta had never whined about blisters on her palms from hauling concrete. She wanted to whine about the prospect of typing. “I don’t know how many contacts my advisor has.”
“So let’s find out. Figure out what you can tell the rich people’s gardening magazines. The zoologists. Whoever. And when you’re done with that, start again at the same places, with pieces on the rest of the movement. You didn’t think that you were going to be our fairy godjournalist and fix it in an article, did you?”
“No, of course not. No. But … I don’t know anything about the rest of the movement,” Augusta said, but she was wavering.
“Good,” said Vicki, as if she’d come right out and said yes. “You can learn. This is going to be a long fight. But if we have someone talking to the world from inside the tent instead of outside ….”
“We should get another tent,” said Peter, and they argued about it until Augusta got bored and wandered off to help with patching the roof, doing the dishes, all the things that inevitably needed doing for the world to keep turning.
Marissa Lingen is a science-fiction and fantasy writer living in the Minneapolis suburbs with her family. In recent years she has branched out into essays and poetry. Her work has appeared in Nature, Uncanny, Disabled Writers Destroy Science Fiction, Reckoning, and elsewhere.
Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, Grace Abe is an illustrator and designer based in Boston.