Wednesday, October 2, 2013

2H2K - March 2050: WildcRaft

Boston Dynamic's "Big Dog"

[This is the third short story in a series, the first story is here; the second is here]
  “What’s it called again?” Little Jo asked.
E.J. had turned away. The back of his t-shirt was printed with the slogan “laboR wants to be FREE.” He wore baggy jean, that looked like they hadn’t been washed in weeks and heavy boots made of thick leather, or something very much like it. He was using the his heel of his boot to roll the next log out of the tall grass. Once there was enough room on either side to plant his feet, he lifted the –
“It's a ‘godevil’ or a ‘splitting maul,’” he told her, without looking back. He sounded a bit peeved at being interrupted. Jo smiled and made a sound of approval. She had gone off topic, and interrupted his train of thought, she knew what to expect. E.J. would take his time before returning to the subject. Go ahead, she thought, have a good sulk. Her smile widen.
With the ‘godevil’ still held over his head, E.J. filled his lungs and swung down, surprising his sister with the force and precision of the swing. Little Jo half expected the twelve foot long log to split all the way down the center with a sharp woody crack, but E.J.’s swing drove the tool’s blade into the far end of the log with a bone-jarringly abrupt, but surprisingly wet thud. If a split had formed at all, Little Jo couldn’t see it from where she sat. Still, she was impressed. There had been nothing tentative about his movements. He knew what he was doing. Six months in the woods had done E.J. good.

“Look,” he said, still not looking back at her, “I’m not talking about those flatbed diesel bastards. That’s what’s being replaced. Their days are done-”

Stopping, E.J. looked around till he saw what he was looking for. He left the godevil lodged in the end of the log and walked to where he had previously been working. Finding a depression in soaking wet tall grass, he scooped up three large steel wedges before heading back to the log.

“– I mean maybe in Russia,” he continued, “but not up here. I mean, you’re right. Those things are really destructive.” E.J. looked at the wedges in his hand, and briefly tried shaking them, as if that would wick the moisture off them.“But that’s what Billy has done; made those obsolete.”

“What’s the difference?” she asked, “You’re still cutting down trees right?” Little Jo already knew that there must be a difference, or E.J. wouldn’t be so excited about cutting trees down; he was too much the OOObjector- he had that almost animistic-environmentalist world view. There was no possible way he was out here chasing profits. However, she really didn’t understand the difference between what he was doing and the clear-cutting the Russians were doing.

E.J. once again straddled the log, which was a bit bigger around than he was and almost twice as long. He grabbed the end of the godevil’s handle and began working to dislodge the tool’s head from the log. He was not a big guy, but last time she had seen him, E.J. had bee much more child-man than man-child. Now his shoulders and biceps stretched the fabric of his t-shirt. He was still very thin, but he wasn't wispy anymore. They used joked about how out of shape they both were. He had described them as “skinny-fat.” He had been weirdly proud, it had made her feel better about how pasty she was.

Under the privacy of the poncho, Little Jo pinched the fat on her belly and felt no pride. She tried to remember how long it had been since she had seen her brother, eight months? A year? She realized it was two thanksgivings ago. Almost a year and a half.

Little Jo watched with some interest as E.J. placed one of the wedges into the cleft he’d made with the maul’s axe head. Using the godevil’s blunt, sledgehammer-like back end, he tapped the wedge in until it held itself in place. He looked back at her and smiled.

“The forests here can sustainably absorb about a five percent annual cut -“ As he said this, he had once again set his footing. This time, instead of raising the godevil back over his head and swinging downward, he swung it from the ground, back and over his head, in one great circular movement. Little Jo thought of the woodcut of a hammer swinging John Henry her father had hanging in his office when she was a girl. And again, E.J. struck true. The sledge hammer face of the maul hit he wedge with a loud metal crack. This time the bark tore and Little Jo could see a split form down the length of the log that ran two or three feet. Little Jo was more than a little impressed that he could hit the wedge at all, much less drive it home with such flare.

“The loggeR teams that Billy has developed are still big, but they are a lot lighter; and, more importantly, a lot more efficient than the old flatbed rigs. The economics of logging hasn’t changed since,” E.J. stopped in the middle of setting a second wedge and looked hard at the forest around them, as if the dates he was trying to recall were hidden among the branches.“Ffffp… since I don’t know when; forever. Roads have required bulldozing pretty much right up to the base of the trees. Then as many trees as possible had to be cut in that one spot to make the whole enterprise worth the trouble.”

Little Jo couldn’t help smiling as she listened to E.J. making his forestry spieled; while his crew of modified-gardeneRs scoured the clearing for mushrooms, clover and other delectables all around him. Like meerkats, but built from day-glow orange cellulose castings and sky blue magnetic gel actuators. Periodically they would pop their tiny POV studded heads up above the tops of clearing’s long wet grass. Little Jo imagined the little machines were checking on E.J.’s position and one another. Leave it to him to program himself as the leader of the pack. Meanwhile, her brother the servutect, split logs by hand and pontificated on the subject of Free laboR.

“California, Washington, and Oregon have all accepted Billy’s proof-of-concept. As of now, ambulatory crew-laboR is the law of the land on the West Coast. No new roads; and, more critically, the ones that exist will been allowed to grow over. We don’t need them any more.”

Billy was E.J.’s mentor. He had recruited E.J. to join the Servotecture Lab at Stanford. The two of them had spent the past eight months traveling throughout the Cascades and Olympics, from one test camp to another, study Billy’s loggeR crews in action, and making adjustments to the software and hardware as needed. When Jo decided to leave LA, she had asked E.J. if she could visit. It had been three hours from SeaTac. And sitting here on a wet stump, as far off the grid as one could get within the continental US, Jo wasn’t sure she had done the right thing. Under her brother’s rain poncho she was still wearing the slacks and flats she had picked out to wear on the red-eye. 

E.J. had laughed when she arrived, and offered to loan her a pair of his giant boots. She had refused, which she now regretted. He and Billy were roughing it, she was out of her depth and worried she might be in the way.

“OK,” she conceded as the mist seemed to be faze-shifting to a drizzle. Little Jo, determined not to be outdone by her Northwest-acclimated brother, paused to pull her hood up and to arrange her limbs in an effort to conserve heat. ”So, no more clear-cutting seems good, but what’s so important about the roads?”

“First of all, no more flatbeds – no more wheels, no more caterpillar tracks – these are incredibly damaging technologies.” E.J. gestured around at his hacked gardeneRs. “The future of forestry belongs to the ambulant. Crews of bipedal and quadrupedal laboreRs that can fall, limb, buck, and, most importantly, pack out logs - on ‘foot.’ All without destroying root systems and,” again he gestured to the little gleaners, “the even more fragile rhizomic networks.”

“Wait.” Little Jo looked around in confusion. “I thought these things were picking mushrooms. What do networks have to do with anything?"

“'Rhizome' originally referred to mushrooms. When we think of old growth forests we tend to focus on the sexy stuff: the big tree – where the money is. But, in old growth forests, mushrooms other small flora and fauna form networks that are similarly complex, just as important to the health of the overall system, and take just as long, if not longer, to regenerate.” Again the maul swung around in a great loop and the godevil drove a new wedge with a great crack of metal.

“Fine. Wheels are bad… because they crush mushrooms. Still, wouldn’t it be faster to have porteRs carry out the logs on roads?

“Where there are roads, there are people. Hunters and day trippers are quickly followed by summer homes, shopping malls, and whatever else.” E.J. had set the next wedge at the narrow end of the split he’d made with the first and was now preparing to drive it in. “Picture this: all these trees,” he said look at her and waving his had in a circle, “in all the Forestry lands, are tagged to be logged. Barring a big fire, the Forestry Dept and other big stakeholders know exactly what each year’s harvest is going to be for the next five decades. Now, they can also map-out by exactly what rout and and in what order they are going to get the individual logs out – all optimized for the health of the forest. And by that I mean the whole system, the trees, underbrush, and the fauna. Roberts’ your mother’s brother.”

Little Jo laughed. She loved hearing her father’s intentionally lame, Midwestern-flat, take on cockney rhyming slang come out of her brother’s mouth, and appreciated his desire to lighten the mood – he had, after all, been lecturing for a while now. She knew what he was trying to do. That he was filling dead air, getting her off the hook from having to talk about why she was here at all. And although she was interested in E.J.’s ideas, and appreciated not having to talk about the ongoing implosion of her life, her attention had started to wander. 

She had begun to study what E.J. was doing in more detail. She noticed the wedges were old. The wide end of the wedges looked like something a cartoonist might draw: the steel there had split and curled at the edges from decades of repeated hammer blows. She wondered how many others had landed blows similar to those her brother was delivering now.

“Rather than send in one or two big flatbed loggeRs, Billy’s model is to send in a crew of six or eight big quadrupeds with packs of light-weight buckeRs, chokeRs, and whatever else is needed for support. That’s where my crews come in.” He said, gesturing in the direction of his gardeneRs.

“There are separate, uncontested contracts, to clear brush. These not only include the pulping rights from the branches and other logging debris; but also whatever dead underbrush they collect. Billy had told me he wanted me to develop a crew. So I proposed a scheme.”

E.J. paused to look at his hands, and Little Jo studied his face. She could tell he was setting her up, but couldn’t figure out what for. He clearly was excited to be out here and seemed to believe Billy’s contract was worth something. “Sounds good, but not world changing,” she sassed. “What’s the point?”

Again her brother swung from the ground in a great windmilling swing. with a crack the second wedge opened the split in the log another two feet, it loosened up the first wedge. E.J. moved forward again and used the maul to drive the wedge back in tight, opening the split even wider. “So it turns out the contract also allows for ‘wildcraft’.” E.J. paused, looked around again, until he found what he was looking for and then moved towards a steel thermos. As he drank and then poured cool water over his hands, Little Jo wondered at how much her brother had changed, and how he hadn’t changed at all.

Although she was eight years older than E.J. and had a powerful maternal protectiveness for him, she had never felt like he was her “baby brother.” Growing up with E.J. had been more like trying to outrun a demon. Little Jo had never known what she wanted to do, or stuck to anything she had ever tried very long. In contrast, E.J. had seemed born knowing what he wanted and where he was going. He was passionate about servutecture and the “transformative potential of FREE laboR.” Little Jo knew if she didn’t ask he would drag this moment out forever. “OK, I give up. What is ‘wildcraft”?

“Right?” He asked, his face lighting up with a triumphant smile. “That’s what I wanted to know!” 


Again the maul had found its mark and now the split ran the entire length of the log. “So when I told Theo about the contract, he was the one who asked about wildcrafting.” With that Little Jo lost the thread: she couldn’t understand why E.J. was bringing Theo into this conversation. Theo was their great uncle. Growing up, they spent time with him in New York with their parents; but, he wasn’t a lawyer or a forestry expert, he was a conceptual artist.

“What does Theo know about forestry contracts?”

E.J. now placed himself at the opposite end from where he had started and worked a fourth wedge into the split. The new wedge was as big as the others, but made of bright yellow plastic. “Nothing.” He looked at her with feigned exasperation. “But he used to be an Jubilant.” E.J. flashed her a mischievous smile, narrowing his eyes into upside-down crescents. And then, without warning the godevil swung into action driving the yellow wedge deep into the end of the log and opening the split wide.

“You’re totally censoRed!” she laughed, matching E.J.’s use of their father’s take on Bobs your Uncle, with an example of her father’s equally obscure exclamation of surprise. Little Jo could not imagine their Theo protesting the Goldman-Sachs Amendments. She tried picturing the serious old man with patchouli-drenched dreadlocks, rubbing a crystal, or drumming in an attempt to levitate the Federal Bank; but the picture wouldn’t gel. It was too implausible. “Theo was never a Jubilant!”

“I’m censoRed. OK, Theo wasn’t a Jubilant, but he did live in western BC with no running electricity or water or something in the 90s –”


“No,” E.J. replied with mock-contempt, “the 1990s. Evidently he worked for a wood carver out there. Some kind of civil-rights back-to-lander… I don’t really remember-”

“Like you?” She joked, but now she was remembering that E.J. was right. Theo hadn’t been an Jubilant, but he had told her stories about living in the woods.

“No, not at all like me at all. I am simply a misplaced laboR activist. Apparently this carver Theo worked for was part of a cooperative or some form of early ‘Participatory Economics.’ Whatever. The carver the real deal, and worked, or traded, or something, with people who practiced ‘wildcraft.’” He shot up a hand to stop her from interrupting. “I know what you’re thinking, and before you ask: no, it has nothing to do with magic. It has to do with collecting moss, lichen, mushrooms, and other valuable plants from the forest.” Again E.J gestured around at the little gardeneRs he had set to harvest mushrooms and clover.

Using the heels of his boots and the godevil’s ax head to push apart the two halves of the log, E.J. worked to break the great splinters of wood that still held the halved log together.

“Look, Joey. I know this sounds like a money making scheme, because it is. But it isn't a get-rich-quick scheme. If done sustainaby, the contract I've negotiated just covers the margins. But it does cover the margins that’s why I think this could be good.” After separating the two halves, E.J. pushed one off to the side and flipped the other over preparing to slit it into quarters.

Pausing to wipe his nose on his wrist, E.J. pointed at one of his gardeneRs. It had popped up for a look around not far from where Little Jo was sitting. “These are off the rack. I added a custom software package upgraded to military-grade batteries and replaced the POVs with a interferometric sensor that acts as a mass spectrometer; but, after that, it has all been cross training.”

Again he kicked at the logs until the two haves lay parallel to one another, a couple of feet apart. “The wildcraft clause in the forestry contract is evidently left over from when people used to clear underbrush by hand – or more commonly, not at all. I didn’t know what to expect, but have been knocked out by how many varieties of plants and fungi we've been are able to identify. And it turns out almost all of it is really valuable; it could turn out to be as valuable as the lumber contracts.”

“How does ‘wildcraft’ amount to a greater good rather than just a profiteering?”

“Because while demographics may be destiny, no one really knows how long the ‘Great Retraction’ is going to last – or even if population will fall at all. We are in historically unexplored territory. The life expectancy has plateaued for the time being, but that won’t last. The Geries are going to start living longer and longer, and, more dangerously, living younger and younger. A new baby boom could be around the corner if that happens.” he said the last sentence while wagging his eyebrows suggestively, but the goofiness dropped away like a veil and suddenly his face was serious, his gaze inward directed. Hooking the godevil’s head on the end of one log, E.J. absently tugged until the split halves were lined up.

“Rewilding is all the rage right now because of inurbation. Populations are shrinking inwards into increasingly dense urban spaces. The Geries are fra-ay-ay-ail" he croaked in an old man voice, "and getting frailer. They don’t want to live out here, so the forests are bigger now than they have been since colonial times! But that could change – making these forests inaccessible will help protect them if things do change. If these forests become valuable as real-estate again, forget about it.”

“Josephine, if habitat for rewilding is going to be preserved – and even grow, it has to produce profits, profits bigger than tract housing; laboR can deliver that.”

Little Jo studied her brother. His hair had grown long and curly; and, like the coarse sweater he was wearing, his hair was covered in a fine mist of dew. The stubble on his jaw looked like it could support a beard if he let it. His eyes were filled with something she wished she had for herself. He believes every word he’s saying.

He had made his point and was letting it sink in. She seemed to be considering his point; weighing it in her mind. In reality, Little Jo, who had been content to watch her brother from the sidelines all this time, was suddenly restless. Before he could take his next swing she blurted, “Can I try?”

E.J. stopped himself, just as he was lifting the godevil from the ground. He looked at his older sister. Without ever completely letting go of its handle, E.J. tossed the maul upward, catching it at mid-handle, and offered it to her. “Sure.”


E.J. watched as Little Jo positioned her feet; planting them on either side of the log, nicely imitating the way his stance. Twisting her hips and testing her footing she raised the godevil up over her head. He could see she was surprised by the weight, but he was pleased with how she handled it. She had been cross-training the job in her mind while they talked.

E.J. watched her as she gathered herself and then swung mightily at the log. But missed. Horror crashed down on him as the maul/godevil made a sickening thud, sending his sister crashing to the ground with a howl of pain.

E.J. had stood frozen. For a moment - that seemed impossibly long - before he could bring himself to move, before he could will himself to rush to his sister’s aid, before he could force  air back into his lungs, in the eternity before he had a chance to see him that the godevil’s blade hadn’t cut her foot to pieces, but had just missed it; that it was sunk deep into the sod besides her sneaker; that the maul’s handle had crashed into her shin with bone bruising force, but that her foot was spared - before willed himself to rush forward and saw his sister’s bruised shin and unmarred foot, before he saw the color rise back into her face - in that suspended terrible moment that had felt endless.

“Dad's going to kill me,” he finally managed. Little Jo exploded into a fit of laughter so hysterical, so euphoric, so wild in its relief, it took them both a few seconds to realize she wasn’t wailing in pain.

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