This story was inspired by episode #130 - "Holdout" from the podcast 99% Invisible, which you can listen to here, and by my dear friend Alison, a true protector of the Wilderness. It is unfinished.
She lived in a tent, in a tree, in a Park, and they called her the Witchy Woman, and she was rarely seen by anyone these days. The Park was called Yosemite and it was beautiful. Oak stood next to pine and fir, amongst the last living bits of moss, mugwort, and madrone, and there was even a little waterfall that rotated the same 100 gallons of greenish water to the delight of tourists. The park stood in front of a spectacular HD view of Half-Dome, the windows of the HalfDome Home™ an ever-changing 9,000 ft tall video clip of where the monolith itself stood until it didn’t.
Like the filling of the Grand Canyon with trash, and the oil rigs now dotting Yellowstone, this didn’t happen because people hated the Wilderness, it happened because it was necessary. What do you do when the population hits 14 billion and no one knows where to put 3 generations of unemployed Americans? God knows trying to stop people from having kids didn’t work, the media screamed “eugenics!” and demanded that we add government funding to the Mars colonization project, and then the Moon, but those places filled up, and people got tired of living with their entire extended families in the tiny cramped housing units that were stacked higher and higher, until they started crashing down.
The first Apartment Collapse in China killed 3.7 million people when a building that had been designed to hold 250 floors was extended to nearly 700. It fell, as did 11 buildings it slammed into. Bystanders described it as a large scale game of dominos, and the wreckage was so impossible to manage that they just flattened it as best they could, drilled in new foundations, and built on top of it. And so Half Dome was carved into a luxury apartment complex, and the San Francisco bay was filled with bricks of compressed garbage, and Florida was connected to Mexico by an island build at its tail and then pushed into the gap of ocean it had been designed to fill like a puzzle piece.
Hawaii is about the size of Texas now, and Australia was almost the size of Africa before a nuclear reactor blew and *poof* the last walkabout ended for good.
I know, I know, this sounds like madness, but what do you do? Fire up the gas chambers? Build a planet out of old car tires and Pepsi cans? We tried, we really did, but no one ever wants to spend money on research when 85% of humans are living on Soylent bars and bartering synthetic tobacco extract for Tylenol.
So people acclimated and called it “progress” and little by little trees were replaced with oxygen machines and beaches were replaced with seawalls and over time people mostly forgot what the world used to be like. But some didn’t.
Which brings us to the Witchy Woman.
Dave is a Park Ranger, he carries a gun and makes sure people don’t carve their names into the last living Redwood, or steal leaves or grass from the Park. He lives behind the Half-Dome Apartment complex in an area called "New Fresno" with his wife, Margaret, in one of the low-income studios reserved for government employees. It's small and there is mold in the kitchen and bathroom, but Dave is a 4th generation Park Ranger, and has worked now for 58 years without taking a single day off, and through this, and through Margaret's small inheritance, they are able to afford a unit with floor to ceiling windows in the main room and a small window in the bedroom. At night they can hear rats bickering over trash in the hallways, but in the golden light of early morning a soft glow washes over their sheets and across naked skin, and through sleep-weighted eyelashes one can imagine that the light is coming from some sunlit morning of old, and not from the strange machinery hidden behind their windows, the screens of which goes opaque and dull once they have left for work.
"I don't want to go to work."
"I know, but you've managed it for 40 years."
"They used to retire at my age."
"They used to die at your age."
Bits & Pieces:
“Miss. I am 127 years old. I remember well the world of old, and the wilderness there, and how it could make a man feel. I am grateful to see you fighting for our birthright, and perhaps preserving the one wild place left in this country. Live it well.”
Oh, what does one say, when the letters flow in like pleading voices, and they carry compliments and gifts. She finds herself swarmed by drones bearing gifts of food and warm clothing and the means to create a comfortable home for herself, strange, yes, but better maybe than the world outside, a world she reads about with increasing dread. What life out there is left to live, even? Scraping by on the Guaranteed Minimum Income? Living in smaller and smaller housing units with more and more people? From the Tree you could see it happening, grey shapes forming in the distance, and sounds like thunder and flashes like lightening. There were lights creeping like molten lava across the mountains surrounding her, and the air didn’t taste good, and the Tree felt wrong, somehow, showering her in dead needles, filling her lungs with oxygen and the scent of something gone off, a hormone maybe, more taste than smell. She would wake up choking in the night and feel the tree shudder to the rhythm of machines churning up dirt in the distance. A drone dropped off a package with a portable oxygen mask with a note that said “temporary fix!” And for a few weeks she wore an oxygen mask, and then goggles, and then she just stayed inside her tent, as outside the sky turned dark with smoke and she saw trees falling only miles away. She cried that night, and felt the Tree cry with her, dripping needles like tears and swaying a bit like a human rocking themselves in moments of intense sadness. The night was full of light and smoke and sounds like machines fighting, but her dreams were spent in the lush green landscapes of the past, hands dipped into creek water, fingers pulling the seedheads from stalks of dry grass, face turned towards vultures coasting on wind currents in an empty blue bowl of sky.
She awakens to the sound of silence, strange and uncomfortable after so many years of noise. The tree sways beneath her, but at a rhythm more like a heartbeat than a person sobbing, and there is light pouring in through the canvas of the tent, a warm, yellow glow like candlelight seen through a snow-frosted window. She pushes out of her bed,
and walks outside.
Sunlight dapples her limbs like melting butter, and a warm breeze tempts a sighing sound from the branches of foliage surrounding her. She removes her oxygen mask, and breathes in great lungfuls of warm air, musty with the flavor of sun-warmed bark and fragrant needles.