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The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse
07-29-2010, 12:17 PM,
Rainbow  The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse
The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse

Dale Pendell

The Old Poet had been preparing himself and his community for fifty years. When the Collapse hit they already had their own schools, wineries, mills, gardens, power, and two generations of experience. Nonetheless the Collapse was traumatic, if not on the scale of the urban disasters.

This story is excerpted from the novel The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse recently released by North Atlantic Books.

The Old Poet died at ninety. The community he had done so much to found and nurture came out for one of the largest circles in the history of Sierra Ridge. They had a small battery-powered amplifier and people read favorite poems, or their own poems, or told stories.

The Ridge had sent out the news by radio, both citizens band and short wave. When the telephones and the cell phones had stopped working, the Ridge had quickly reverted to its twice-daily CB breaks. Except for a few Pelton wheels, almost everything was solar: they'd never been on the grid. There was probably more electric light on the Sierra Ridge than anywhere else in the state. They ran electric chainsaws.

They also had an international network of contacts in the literary and intellectual communities, and probably knew more about what was going on in the rest of the world than the CIA. If there still were any CIA.

Short wave broadcasts were relayed from station to station. They were called the "News Relays." Mostly it was done in code. Morse code transmissions could carry great distances if the D layer was behaving. Voice contacts were common, but less reliable.

Brief eulogies arrived from all over the world. It had seemed impossible that an American could win the Nobel Prize, so hated had the country become in the international community, but a book of devastating political poems and critiques in his late seventies had won the Old Poet the prize one year before the Collapse. The book had virtually been prophecy, the causes and progression of the Collapse uncannily sequestered in metaphors and images scattered through the poems.

Greetings came from China and Japan and Korea, from Sweden and Estonia, from Germany, France and Central Europe, from Russia, the Middle East, and from Africa. The radio was manned twenty-four hours transcribing code.

The Old Poet had been preparing himself and his community for the collapse for fifty years. He even had a glass dump on his land, in case it might be needed for flaking arrowheads or tools. People had electric pumps for their wells, but there were always hand pumps in the barn that could be reattached. Spring boxes with gravity feeds were common. In the few flats and sinks that had any soil there were organic gardens. Apple trees had been planted up and down the Ridge for a hundred and fifty years. Still, the Ridge community had turned out to be far more dependent on the fossil fuel economy than they had thought. The mills and woodshops ran on generators. People were used to driving the five and ten mile distances from Maidu Hill to the North Diggins, not to mention the twenty miles to town, or the fifty miles to Sacramento or Yuba City.

For the most part, their forest cabins were clustered in certain neighborhoods or watersheds. Ten families lived in the drainage of icy French Creek. Fifty lived on a tiny spur above the river. There were over a hundred scattered across Maidu Hill, and several hundred more in a score of other tiny watersheds and benches.

When the Collapse hit they already had their own schools, wineries, mills, gardens, power, and two generations of experience. They had a machine shop, a small illegal distillery, and some of the state's more extensive private libraries. Impressive arrays of 12 volt appliances were in operation. People knew how to use outhouses and how to conserve water. There were deer, wild turkeys, and wild pig, in addition to domestic animals. There were horses, people who knew how to use them, and a sizable herd of free ranging cattle.

Nonetheless the Collapse was traumatic, if not on the scale of the urban disasters.

Jake made a political speech. He talked about the difference between personal property and the ownership of resources. He talked about different forms of political organization and the opportunity for the Ridge to encourage and support the other collectives emerging around the state. He said that they should trade their surpluses, which were substantial, with other collectives like their own.

He warned about the possible emergence of a new feudalism. Some people were still claiming ownership of large tracts of land and trying to collect rents in labor. He warned about mercenaries and gangs of bandits. He talked about the possible forms of large scale confederations and non-coercive action and regional gatherings.

He said they should try to form a network of communities, each within a day's journey of another, all in contact by radio, and proposed a series of year-long cultural exchanges with like-minded communities in the valley, on the coast, and around the San Francisco Bay. He said that they should form a confederation without a capital, linked by personal friendships and general meetings that would rotate from community to community.

He said that if they could promulgate the principles of voluntary cooperation through example, they might be able to isolate any groups trying to form large militias or armies and contain them.

He said that the Collapse had given them a chance to explain the intrinsic pathology of military oligarchic states, with their insatiable material acquisitiveness, to everyone. And that they could avoid making the same mistake. He said they needed stories to explain this, and that they had to be taught to the children.

It was a good speech. People hooted. None of Jake's ideas were followed up on, in any specific way, but it didn't matter. Events followed their own momentum and things worked out much as Jake had outlined.

The Old Poet was given a Buddhist funeral, somewhere between that befitting a monk and a fox. They burned his body in Big Meadow on a huge pyre of manzanita branches. The Shingyo was chanted by the circle in Sino-Japanese and in English.

The Collapse had occurred fifty-four years after the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. On Sierra Ridge, the pecan and almond trees, the small groves of black and English walnut trees that had been planted in the early seventies were mature and still bearing.

The first General Rendezvous and Jubilee of the Shasta-Tehachapi California Confederation was held on the spring equinox of 2034 in Davis. Hundreds attended but it was hardly representative of the state.

Petrolia and Humboldt Bay sent representatives on bicycles. Santa Cruz sent a contingent on an all-electric flatbed with twenty solar panels as a roof. Amanda and Ynez left their children with Fly and joined Margo and Yellow Dog to make the long trip north to represent the Roadkill Rangers. They sputtered in on ethanol-converted choppers. Some walked. Some rode horses. Two wood-fired steam wagons arrived from Concord.

There were representatives from Chico and Paradise and Red Bluff. A lone man arrived on foot from Helena, on the North Fork of the Trinity. Dozens of communities in Humboldt, Mendocino, and Lake counties sent contingents. There were groups from Napa and Sonoma and from coastal communities north of Marin. Groups arrived from Berkeley and San Francisco and Modesto. Groups arrived from places no one had heard of. Religious communes sent groups. A Black Muslim group from the South Bay attended "as observers," as did the Karok nation from the Klamath. The Chinatown Tongs sent a group. In many meetings there was simultaneous translation in English and Spanish.

A festival atmosphere prevailed but there were many workshops on topics ranging from political matters, such as a possible charter, to issues related to technology, to discussions on earth-based spirituality. One group discussed founding regional moots as a kind of appeals court to solve problems that could not be resolved at the local level.

Many had little experience with consensus decision making and progress was slow. There were issues of collective defense and discussions on what to do about the bandit gangs. Jake Matson, as part of the Sierra Ridge Collective, again tried to encourage his idea of year-long cultural exchange residencies.

Very little was decided in the meetings, but the parties were great. Even if no agreements had been reached on the particulars of the Confederation, its essential existence was already a reality. No decision was even reached about where or when to hold the next General Rendezvous and Jubilee, and four years passed until another gathering was convened, again at Davis. The Second General was poorly attended. Regional get-togethers, however, became common, and that was how it worked.

As the First General drew to a close, Jake decided that he should take his own advice and left the Jubilee with the Santa Cruzans. Two of the Santa Cruzans wanted to go to the Ridge, so there was plenty of room on their truck. With the panels on top the flatbed looked like a safari tram. Everyone cleaned up the grounds for a day, though there was very little loose trash, and they pulled out on the 30th of March.

Jake talked a lot to an auburn-haired woman with green eyes named Debbie, who had been a graduate student in mathematics before the Collapse. She liked science fiction and politics and Jake was in love before they reached the Carquinez Bridge at Benicia.

Jake did everything he could not to be obvious: he talked to the other people, or he'd keep quiet, hanging off the back of the truck. Then he'd catch her smile or their eyes would meet and Jake would beam.

They pulled off in Martinez and drove to the reservoir to let their batteries recharge for the rest of the afternoon. They were welcomed by a group calling themselves the Steamfitters Union. They'd built the steam wagons and Jake had met some of them at the Rendezvous. Most of the older men had worked at the refinery. Jake wanted to know if there was still any oil in the hundreds of giant tanks covering the hills. One of the men replied that there wasn't much, but that "there might be some jet fuel at Concord." Debbie wanted to know if the refinery were still operable.

"Might be," the man named Sam laughed, "if we'd stop taking parts out of it. But what then, you see any oil tankers?"

"A little gasoline could go a long ways," Jake put in.

"A little gasoline is not what this place is about," Sam said. "Trust me."

"What about a little kerosene?"

Sam laughed. "Well, that could be useful. We're thinking about that one. But we had to give the steam engine higher priority. We have to run tools and we have to move this stuff around. And this stuff is heavy. Like I say, we're working on it. But in the meantime we have to eat. It's pretty much the fishermen keeping us going now, and the gardens."

No one could think of anything else to say. Sam farted.

"We eat a lot of beans," he added.

The Steamfitters all lived within walking distance of the reservoir and said goodnight and went home. The Santa Cruzans laid bags or blankets down where they could find flat ground and went to bed. Jake found a spot on the grass behind a hedge. He was lying on his back with his hands behind his head when Debbie walked over with a rolled blanket under her arm and asked him if he were sleeping alone. Jake wasn't sure whether to answer from past tense or future tense, so he just sat up and said "Hey."

"What is it about me and shy men?" Debbie asked no one in particular. Then she laughed, put down her blanket roll, and sat on it, facing Jake. "Maybe we should talk about it?"

Miraculously, Jake managed to say that he didn't think that was a good idea. They did much better not talking.

In the morning Jake and Debbie hung together and found they had lots to talk about. The batteries on the truck were charged and the truck pulled back onto 680. As they drove from Martinez, Debbie said that if Sam and his friends didn't get diesel in production before they died it wasn't going to happen. Jake agreed.

They stopped again in Los Gatos to let the batteries come to full charge before heading over Highway 17. They were ready by late afternoon. They'd just gotten started up the hill when they saw a man lying face down on the pavement a little down the last exit before Lexington Reservoir. There was another man crouched over him and he waved at them to stop. They parked and went over to see how to help. The man lying down rolled over and they both pulled guns and told everyone not to move. Three other men and a woman crossed the highway from the other side of the truck. They all brandished guns and ordered Albert out of the cab.

The man who had been lying down smacked Jake in the head with his gun and knocked him down. Blood poured into his eyes. The short-haired man who had been crouching put his arm around Debbie's neck and pulled her against him and put his pistol to her temple. He told everyone to start walking. Jake was still sitting on the asphalt.

"You too!" the short-haired man said.

"I'm waiting for her," Jake said without getting up.

The man looked at him awhile, deciding what to do. Jake had his arms on his knees and looked back. The man pushed Debbie to the ground and walked over to Jake and brought the pistol to the middle of Jake's forehead. Jake could see the bullets in the chambers of the cylinder. The man told Jake to open his mouth. Jake did. The man pushed the gun against the roof of Jake's mouth and forced his head back.

"If I ever see you again I'll kill you. You got it?"

Jake stared back into the man's eyes. After a while he nodded. The man pulled his gun back and kicked Jake in the ribs.

"Now get going."

They did. They had a sixteen mile walk to Santa Cruz.

The bandits all hopped onto the truck and turned it around and headed back down toward Los Gatos. They fired four or five parting shots that ricocheted off the pavement.

"That's what we get for not carrying guns," Jake said.

Debbie said she wasn't sure about that. They were all alive.

Jake went around armed for two months after that. From time to time they would get news of the electric truck. It showed up in Gilroy and Jake wanted to mount an expedition to get it back. He found men who were willing but Debbie talked him out of it. Later he heard that the short-haired man had been shot in the head and that the truck had changed hands. Someone said that the truck was being used by farmers in Hollister. Jake stopped wearing his gun.

Debbie lived on the San Lorenzo River in a house near the cemetery with two friends. The cemetery turned out to be excellent gardening land that Debbie helped work with a hundred other people. They pumped water from the river with solar. Jake settled in and was as happy as he'd ever been in his life.

Debbie was a programmer and had a computer that would still boot but she never turned it on anymore. What was there to do with it? For a while she and Jake watched movies but more and more they found them boring and slightly depressing, especially movies set in cities. Comedies weren't funny. Westerns were better but a little silly. Reading was more satisfying or they would just go to bed and snuggle and enjoy each other.

When the earthquake hit Oakland in late fall it had been raining for two weeks and slides covered Highway 17 at several places near the summit, as well as most of the other roads in the mountains. Buildings downtown collapsed, along with most of the houses in the flatlands. Highway One north was washed out in numerous places. Debbie's collective lost a water tank. A mudslide took out half of the house of two friends up the canyon, along with the two friends. Jake and Debbie adopted Sasha, their seven-year-old daughter, who had been sleeping in the other room.

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