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A Land of Rivers and Stars
Torn between a glimmering space metropolis and a cozy earth commune, a teenager ponders where and how to take her next steps towards adulthood.
Tula looked around at the sea of radishes. The Nest farm grew rainbow varieties so she liked to try and guess what color bulb she would pull up. She started filling the basket of her bike, marveling at their perfection. Her favorites were the purple outsides with orange insides. In salads, they looked like citrus slices. As she built a mighty collection of real radishes, she remembered picking ‘Radish’ as her final flavor from Space City’s soft-serve machines before her trip back. It wasn’t quite the same as the real thing.
In Atlanta City, Tula lived with her mom, Opal, in the house at the top of the hill, above the garden next to the gathering pavilion. From her room, she could see the entire farm, all the houses around it, and the wild Chattahoochee River beyond the next hill.
Last night, Opal had made a big feast to welcome Tula and the other children returning to the Nest from Space Camp. The Nest was a commune of twelve families that they had lived in since Tula was a baby. Now, there were six kids ranging from 11 to 18. Tula loved Opal’s fall recipes, especially her pumpkin stews from the squash harvest. At dinner, a lot of the adults had asked Tula about camp and if she had a good time, but Tula knew better than to trust them with an honest response. Most of the adults in the Nest hadn’t been to Space City, and the ones who had rarely mentioned it. After the meal and return-to-land rituals, Tula was in her room and could hear Opal and the other parents talk about Space City late into the night. Sam, who was an architect and taught the children Material Resources, was always the most skeptical : “Why would you want a home made of loud machines? Disgusting that the food was made in a lab instead of the earth. How could anyone stand to live surrounded by so much steel and plastic? Why would you want to be inside a computer your whole life?”
Tula listened to the distant chatter of Sam’s sentiments and pulled out the maps from Deva, her other parent. Deva had moved to Space City permanently when Tula was six. Tula was told that Deva was going to be neighbors with the moon. It was true—Space City orbited the moon and Tula had always liked that she could look at the sky and always know where Deva was. Before she left, Deva convinced Opal to send Tula to Space Camp every summer for three months. Deva had also given Tula two old maps: a big contoured map of the world’s continents and a pocket-sized map of the Space City transit system.
Deva and Opal hadn’t seen each other in twelve years, and Tula sometimes felt like she was the only evidence their lives had ever intersected. They had originally met on a trip Deva made to Atlanta City for an Organics Innovation Conference. Deva had been travelling the world spreading methods for the new society and Opal had more than one thing to teach her. Tula always imagined it as a whirlwind romance. She used to wish they would get back together, but this summer at Space Camp, Tula went to a trivia event with Deva’s friends and imagined Opal trying to fit in there. It finally clicked for Tula: neither of them would even make sense in the other's world.
Tula was told that Deva was going to be neighbors with the moon. It was true—Space City orbited the moon and Tula had always liked that she could look at the sky and always know where Deva was.
Tula had finished filling the basket with radishes and started scanning the meadow for mushrooms but didn’t see any of the white caps. Sometimes she had better luck in the public forests this time of year.
Tula met Pippa the same night at trivia. Pippa had had a mess of blue hair that looked like the ocean and knew all the answers to questions about animals. Tula worked up the courage to compliment Pippa and ask where she lived on Earth. Pippa was from California by the ocean in The City of Angels, and her family harvested seaweed, oysters, and mussels but didn’t grow row crops. Tula told her all about the Nest and their farm, even drawing a map of all the crops and their seasonal rotations.
The sun hung strong in the afternoon sky and Tula pulled her bamboo and wood slab bike from behind the house—it had been carefully sanded along the edges for a smooth ride over the dirt roads. She looked back at the house and then peeled out on her bike, passing the farm on her right and heading south toward the river. Tula thought about the overwhelming joy she felt from their first kiss the night before they left Space City. She loved the way she felt around Pippa—like her life was interesting enough for someone else to listen to.
Before she could bike herself, Tula would ride around Atlanta City between the handlebars on Deva’s bike. On Earth and in Space, Deva could make just about anything with the materials available to her. She had built Tula’s seat with an old cushion and rope belt, and strapped it to the front of the bike so they had the same view. Deva grew up in Lagos City and spent her whole life there before she met Opal. She didn’t know much about Atlanta, except that Opal’s ancestors had stewarded the land there for many generations. Opal was conflicted when they used a chromosome swapper to get pregnant with Tula. To her, that was where the issues really began. Deva loved the move around and thought technology could make their lives better. The Nest was an existing commune of Opal’s childhood friends but there weren’t any other children there yet. Deva really tried to make friends with the other adults in the Nest and was elected to the Preservation Council, but was always restless in Atlanta City. She would take trips whenever she was able and come back happier than when she left. Tula loved hearing the stories of other cities and landscapes. Opal said that she always knew eventually Deva would tire of living on Earth. Tula wished for a different truth but could see it clearly now. Deva’s zest for life and novelty was common in Space City. There, she was surrounded by folks just like her who were also fascinated by the frontier.
On wheels, Tula was fast. She felt the wind pull on her two braids and the hills roll into each other over her right shoulder. On the left, the landscape of Atlanta City grew into view. She could see a horizon of thatched roofs from the cob buildings popping up through the blanket of green rolling hills. The mess of roads and bridges criss-crossed at what seems like a million intersections.
Sam had taught her about the Industrial Commerce Era and saw photos of the multi-story buildings and shiny metal cars that people drove over fat asphalt roads. During the Organic Revolution, everything that couldn’t be put back into the Earth was disassembled into raw materials and sent up to Space City. The Orgos even pulled up the old railroad tracks and preserved plastic signs so they could be used for the transit system and signage in Space. Tula sometimes closed her eyes and tried to imagine the textures of Space City inside her hometown, but she couldn’t get a clear picture. They were completely different habitats. Tula had always identified as an Orgo and felt proud when she heard the story of The Organic Revolution. The movement spread worldwide; starting in European cities, south to the African continent, east to Asia, and eventually to North American cities. People of all ages came together to undo centuries of development and restore natural habitats. Now it was 2188, over a century later, and 80% of land worldwide was rewilded and home to eight billion people.
On the left, the landscape of Atlanta City grew into view. She could see a horizon of thatched roofs from the cob buildings popping up through the blanket of green rolling hills.
Tula had asked the Nest teachers about opposition to the Organic Revolution. Jerrod, the holder of history, told her about many counter-movements. They were primarily made up of the older generation who were losing positional power and eventually died out after putting up a strong resistance, especially to letting go of electronics. Emerging technology in synthetic biology allowed for the organic computing and the bioweb as an alternative to the internet and electronic devices. The bioweb also connected Space City to Earth, establishing true connectivity between the movements. Around the time of the revolution, the United Nations ceremonially disbanded many of the nation-states and federal citizenship, and city-states and communes like the Nest were experimenting with new models. All taxes were opt-in, but there were many contribution options and types of public spending, so only a minority opted to be entirely self-sovereign. The Nest mirrored the structure of the majority of small urban communes, paying taxes to both Atlanta City and the Southeast Regional Land Trust.
Space City had been constructed in the moon’s orbit and founded as a benevolent oligarchy. From what Tula understood, all citizens who opted to live there had to sign the Oath, a commitment to social equality and progress. All of their governing and economic systems were managed by a bioweb integration that adapted with each new conflict. Its ultimate mission was to provide an equanimous and harmonious society for all. Cosmos were frequently polled for input and from what Tula could gather, the codes and ordinances changed all the time. It seemed overly complicated, but that did not seem to bother any of the folks who lived there. At Space Camp, Tula would ask what the adults thought about Earth and learn about where they all grew up. They called the Orgos, or folks on Earth, “EarthWorms,” but otherwise they were fond of their planet of origin, speaking often of the places they missed, memories of the oceans, and foliage from their childhood.
While Tula rode toward the public forests to find the mushrooms, Opal woke up from an afternoon nap. She hated to admit it, but when Tula was away, she struggled to stay grounded. The rest of the Nest helped with the farm work and cooking, but Opal needed family. Tula had slept in her bed with her for five years after Deva moved up, but now she felt relaxed having the bed to herself. Sometimes in the heat of the summer, the adults would take advantage of the children being away and find splendor in each other’s warm bodies. However, Opal was the unspoken matriarch of the Nest and did not always let loose like the rest of them. Now that summer was over, Tula was back at the center of her world, just how she liked it.
Opal made it out of the house and scanned the farm for Tula’s jet-black braids. Dusk would arrive in short order and she needed help with dinner. Opal had learned the hard way that the people of the Nest needed to be fed right around sunset to avoid nonsense debates sparked by long working days and fanned by hunger. In the outdoor kitchen, she did a quick inventory on the day’s harvest. She threw in all the ingredients for a stew into a large stoneware pot and hoisted it over the flame. Opal thought about what to do; Tula was grown now, she had turned 18 at camp this summer and should know to tell her mother before leaving the Nest.
Opal could feel her heart pounding with mounting anxiety. Atlanta City had come a long way from the urban capitalist sprawl of the 20th century to its current form as a haven for Orgos seeking communal life. When Deva was on the Preservation Council, the group had pushed for a detoxification of the waterways and a re-soiling of the bike paths throughout town. Deva had learned from Lagos City how to prioritize urban infrastructure to nurture both people and the environment. At the time, Opal encouraged her getting involved and even now, she felt proud of Deva’s contributions to her native city.
Opal had a bad hip and rarely left the Nest, so she worried every time Tula was out. Her deepest fear was that Tula would one day leave her. Anytime the topic came up, Opal would stand up and walk away to signal her discontent with the conversation. She knew that Tula had a lot to offer the world outside of the Nest, but all she wanted was for the two of them to live here on this land that she loved so much.
The forest was where Tula felt most free. She walked through the creek, squishing her toes in the mud with every step and watched orange light play games with the creek. She pulled out the moonstone from her pocket that Deva had given her on her first trip to Space City. It was carved in the shape of a regular octahedron, just like Space City. She dipped it in the stream and thought about her two moms and two homes uniting, even just for a moment, and felt at peace. She envisioned a land with wide rivers and colorful stars.
Pippa had asked her where she was going to live come spring and, and she couldn’t give a straight answer. Space City only took citizens who were over 18 and could sign the Oath as self-sovereign individuals. After the Oath, other allegiances to city-state, commons, or ethnicity were negated by their new identities as Cosmos. After years of researching how new Cosmos adapted to life in Space City, the Board of Leaders now required all new citizens to go through the lifestyle transition together in cohorts of eight people. Each group became a Star Tribe, and had evolved to take a very similar shape to families and chosen families on Earth.
She dipped it in the stream and thought about her two moms and two homes uniting, even just for a moment, and felt at peace. She envisioned a land with wide rivers and colorful stars.
Tula spotted some woody and oyster mushroom varieties sprouting a few feet from the creek and started gathering them in her wool sling. Pippa didn’t turn 18 until February, but from their excitement about Space life, Tula guessed they were set to become a “Spacenut.” Sea foraging put Pippa in a good position to start as an apprentice in the burgeoning space farming industry. Tula felt a rush of jealousy thinking about Pippa’s self-assurance. Tula was the oldest kid in the Nest, and with Opal at the helm, everyone expected her to stay and take over the farm and cooking. When Deva pushed her to think about the other places, Tula didn’t have the heart to to let her know she was thinking about moving somewhere other than Space City.
She had an affinity for herbology and healing sciences, but if she moved to Space City, she would have to learn to do medicine with synthetics. The apprenticeships were competitive, but Deva was well-connected and could help her find a slot. Opal would be furious. She disavowed all synthetics as corrupt and lectured Tula many times on safety precautions during camp to avoid getting toxic plastic exposure. Many of the Cosmos had advanced prosthetics to manage injuries and disabilities. It was standard to have a nerve-link interface so the prosthetics would adapt based on the user’s common motions. In Space City, Opal’s bad hip would be a non-issue. But the one time Tula tried to bring up this option, Opal had snapped-back with some feisty rant about elites and thinking they were almighty with their technology. Tula had a more balanced view: she knew that natural healing with food and plants had limits. There were some parts of the Midwest where people were researching how to use gene swapping and Eastern rituals together but she didn’t know anyone there.
Her sling of mushrooms was just about full when she heard her name called.
Tula took a deep breath and mustered a loud but wavering reply, “I’M HERE. COMING.”
Tula grabbed her bike from its resting spot against a magnolia and followed the trail out of the forest. The sun had slipped below the foothills, and the sky had a pink glow. Tula could see half of the residents of the Nest in a cluster at the edge of the trees. She had lost track of time and now Opal had sent a search party. Tula felt mortified and angry at the same time. She wished her parents would finally accept that she wasn’t a kid anymore.
Tula slinked out of the forest to meet the group and prepared to explain herself. Tula had always been closer to the other adults in the Nest than the children. They often asked her for help mixing health tinctures and confided their troubles, knowing Tula was good for a secret. They would commiserate over Opal’s mood swings and chat about the latest gossip. Tula loved them. She loved the Nest. When she reached the edge, she saw no signs of worry. Opal had sent them out to find her, but they all knew she was safe. It was Atlanta City, after all.
They rode home together and stopped by the spring tap to fill up on fresh water. Tula loved the idea of becoming a Cosmo, but didn’t know if she wanted to leave Atlanta City—this was where many of her ancestors of the Creek tribes had lived and cared for the land for generations. Drinking the water and eating the food from the farm, she felt connected to them. It was more than heritage; it was everything she revered. Moving away would be abandoning all of this beauty… and abandoning Opal and the Nest. Tula wondered who might be in her Star Tribe if she moved up to Space City.
When they finally got home, it was well past dinner time but everyone was waiting to eat together. The mood was much different than the night before, but Tula tried to smile and sit down unnoticed between the other children. She slurped her stew and started cleaning up the dishes.
Opal eventually cornered her in the kitchen with a cup of fennel tea.
“Tula, I was worried about you.”
“Mom, I’m 18 now. You’re the only one who doesn’t treat me like an adult.”
“Tula, you just got home and could have left a note... told someone where you were going... Anything.” Opal pressed, “I thought something might have happened.”
“Why are you always imagining the worst? I am responsible, I do everything you ask me to. I just went to the forest to gather mushrooms.”
“I do trust you, Tula. But it would be hard for me to get to you if something happened...” Opal paused.
Tula looked at her mother and rolled her eyes. “You would never survive in Space City.”
Opal thought about the roar of a rocket and felt her face heat up: “What’s so great about Space City? It’s just a hunk of junk stuck on a bad loop.”
“Mom, have an open mind for once. Aren’t you ever curious to see the world outside Atlanta City?”
Opal scrunched her face and thought about it for a beat, then responded, “I like it here. Why do I need to go anywhere else?”
“Just because you want to stay here forever, doesn’t mean I should have to!”
With that, Tula stormed back to the house and slammed the hatched door.
This was where many of her ancestors of the Creek tribes had lived and cared for the land for generations. Drinking the water and eating the food from the farm, she felt connected to them. It was more than heritage; it was everything she revered.
Back in her room, she pulled out the maps from under her bed and laid them out side by side. The transit system in Space City had been rearchitected from the pieces of the People Mover in Detroit. Tula had ridden it round and round this summer and could see the old stop names in the cars from its tours on Earth. One the other map, she found Detroit City and ogled the many lakes nearby. The map had both the original coastlines and the coastal lagoon regions that formed when the sea levels started changing dramatically during the climate emergency in the early 2000s. She pulled out her moonstone and used the pointed end of one pyramid to trace along the continents, reveling in how the shapes reminded her of the leaves of miner’s lettuce growing on their land. Tula looked at both maps again, overwhelmed by how much of Earth she wanted to behold and how many Space City secrets she wanted to uncover.
She logged into the bioweb to find images of historic Detroit, but before she could search, she saw a message from Pippa—a long note recounting the rocket ride home and getting sick from the motion. Tula wrote back right away about the dramatic return to the Nest, advising them to suck on some cloves next time for nausea, and asked for some captures of the ocean. It was still sunset there, and Pippa relayed back some scans. Tula opened them and pressed the moonstone into her palm and watched the waves crashing against the shore. Pippa loved to surf and had described the waves as the most powerful force on Earth. Tula had reminded Pippa that the moon actually is responsible for waves. Earth wouldn’t be Earth without the sun and moon. And space is what holds the planets together. This interdependency seemed like a big revelation to Tula at the time, floating up there in Space City. Now, looking out her window, she felt a longing for a life beyond the Nest. She heard the faint sounds of Opal crying in the room next door.
The next morning, Tula tracked down Sam and Jerrod to hear more about Space City. A single astronaut came up with the idea to create a livable city out of all the waste from the Organic Revolution. He rallied the innovation team at the International Space Station and helped get the material processing and initial infrastructure set up on an amalgamation of space trash. The vision for Space City remained an inspiration: a utopia founded for all peoples with anti-racist ideology and social services for all. Transportation, housing, and healthcare were free. There were many types of jobs— research, refabrication, exploration, construction, mining, even farming—but all were valued similarly. Cosmos were able to start their own businesses and go back to Earth whenever they wanted, though few decided to. The main experiment of the Oath was to avoid social stratification and oppression. And over the last century in orbit, it had largely worked. Without borders or geopolitical threats, Space City was a pacifist society. They compounded the recycled silicon for quantum computing and harvested power from geodesic domes of solar arrays. It was truly a visionary place, built for the future from the pieces of the past.
Later that week, Tula was in the kitchen simmering some valerian root to make a balm for joint pain. Opal used it on her hip and there were always takers for any extras. Tula had avoided making eye contact with Opal since the argument. Two days had passed and the conversation kept replaying. What would happen to Opal if she moved to Space City? The rest of the Nest loved Opal, but would they really take care of her the way Tula did? Maybe Tula could visit Pippa on the West coast. Tula had heard from Deva about all the different plants that grew by the Pacific but never had been herself. She wished she could just make her own decisions without Opal always coming up with worst-case scenarios. Tula would go today if she had the courage. She could bike down where the river met the main airtrain station and hop on the back of a passing train car heading west.
It was truly a visionary place, built for the future from the pieces of the past.
Opal walked in, stopping Tula’s runaway plan before it could leave the station.
“Tula, I’m sorry.” Opal sat on a stool by the doorway.
“Mom… I’m the one who should be sorry. I could have told you I was heading out.”
“I just love having you back and when you weren’t here, I overreacted. It’s just… you are the thing I love most in this world.”
“I love you too Mom. I am happy to be back home… but…”
“But…” Opal paused. “You really like it up there, huh?”
Tula turned away. “It’s a different world. There are just so many types of people and all of these new things I’ve never even heard of. We don’t learn about any of it at school. It’s exciting.”
“I’m happy for you, baby. Deva told me you’re really a star at camp. I’m sorry this was your last year. Maybe you can plan another visit in a few years once you get your Herbalist Practice going,” Opal offered.
Tula found a deep breath and then stepped back to face her mother.
“Mom, I’m thinking that I might want to leave the Nest when school ends in the spring.”
Opal spoke slowly: “What do you mean, Tula? Leave… for how long?”
“I’m not sure. I am thinking about becoming a Cosmo. I’m not sure yet, but I really love camp. I love Atlanta City too, but it might not be the only place for me, you know?”
“Tula. I don’t know what you think you’re going to find out there.”
“Mom, I know you love me but this is something I need to find out for myself. I know it’s hard for you to imagine the Nest without me, but I promise I’ll visit.”
Tears pooled in Opal’s eyes while she squeezed out a smile. She wiped the tears with her worn hands and reached out a hand. “Okay, baby. I hear you. Let’s call Deva and we can talk about it together.”
Tula felt almost lightheaded with relief. This conversation about her future had been long-coming but she wasn’t sure it would ever actually happen. She gave Opal a big bear hug and squeezed tighter than usual. When she tried to pull away, Opal held on for an extra beat.
When the leaves fell and the cold rains came, Tula and Opal sat next to each other at dinner every night, and Tula was invited to join the adults by the fire. She laughed at the stories they told and would sometimes slip in a joke of her own. Opal reveled in her daughter’s wit and curiosity. Before bed, she thanked the spirits for giving them so many wonderful years together in the Nest. After the adults went to sleep, Tula would pull out Deva’s maps and mark all the places she wanted to visit. Pippa was writing less and less often. The distance brought some agony, but Deva had comforted her and reminded her not to give too much of herself away to young love.
As the magnolias blossomed, and the Chattahoochee became warm enough to swim, Tula started to pack up her belongings. She only brought her most valued items: some jewelry items from both of her parents’ lineages, her favorite pairs of hand-stitched overalls, the seeds of all the species she had grown on the farm, and obviously, her beloved moonstone from Deva. The morning of her departure, she made the rounds at the Nest. She had written notes for each family including heartfelt goodbyes and recipes for the tinctures and recipes she had been making for them. Opal watched from her window, letting the tears flow freely. Opal had woven Tula a new hemp sling bag and cooked enough meals for her journey. As they hugged goodbye, Tula could feel her own tears. She held Opal’s hands and promised to write. She got Jerrod to promise to check on her every morning.
With a last look back at the Nest, she wheeled her bike on the road toward the river and rode off. The next airtrain to Detroit City was leaving this afternoon and Tula had a ticket.
“Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River, Montana” by Bureau of Land Management, via Flickr