Berta didn’t often leave White Water and its surrounding villages, but once a year she made a pilgrimage to Leeds (her least favourite of Yorkshire’s four cities) to do things she couldn’t do elsewhere. This year she had her apprentice, Andrea, with her for the first time. They made their way from the railway station to the Exchange and Communications District at a fair lick, Berta’s boots making a reassuring ‘thud’, ‘thud’, ‘thud on the concrete. Andrea had to break into a skip-run from time to time to keep up. The skyscrapers soared either side of them: humid towers wrapped in green, growing things. A vertical forest of food, homes for humans and other creatures, twined through with the solar petals and leaves that pulled the energy of the sun down into the earth, where it was converted and metered back to power human endeavour and indulgence.
They arrived at their first destination none too soon for Berta, who preferred her nature horizontal and with the backdrop of a rushing river. She cast a critical eye over the West Quarter Community Food Garden, which had ‘Pride of Leeds’ written across the arch that formed its entrance. She had difficulty finding anything wrong with it. It ranged over a natural terrace, each tier planted in perfect chaos. The canopy was rich and green, but not over-dense, allowing the fruit trees beneath to enjoy the delicate balance of light and shade they needed. The breeze drifted with scents of mint and lemongrass. A young man was harvesting as they passed by, and offered Berta a peach. It smelled of summer, its furred skin giving way to a burst of juice as she sank her teeth into it.
“Very nice,” she said. “Do you have a plant sharing station?”
The young man beamed at her; she guessed he’d had a hand at growing these himself. “Central resources,” he replied. “About half a mile up the main road, there’s a sign, you can’t miss it. This one’s called ‘Blushing Sunrise’.”
“Well, it’s very tasty. Good shape, too. Well done.”
“Berta,” said Andrea as they walked away. “We don’t have room to carry plants along with everything else.”
“I don’t need you to tell me what I can carry, thank you very much.”
She was right, they weren’t here to buy peach trees. They were here to send mail.
When Berta was nine, Grana had sat her down at the dining table and made her write a letter. The table was old, its top a slab of thick, dark-grained wood. It was stripped bare for daytime, for making things on, and gussied up at night with lace and linen to make a backdrop for Grana’s feasts.
Berta smoothed out her paper. She’d made it herself, blended the recycled pulp with stripped lavender flowers to make it smell nice. She wondered if it would still smell nice when her cousins received it in a year’s time.
“They don’t even know who I am,” Berta said. She didn’t have much patience for writing, and her doll really needed her to make her a new dress from the scraps she could see peeking from Grana’s sewing box. “I mean, what’s the point of writing to them?”
It only took one piercing glance from Grana to make Berta realise this was one of those questions that shouldn’t be asked.
Now here she was, more than four decades later, with another lavender-scented envelope in her hand, faced with the same question. But this time it was Andrea who was asking it, and the piercing glare was Berta’s.
“It’s like a child in the womb,” Berta said.
“I don’t follow.” Andrea’s own letter was cradled to her chest.
“You know. The placenta. That sort of thing.”
Andrea’s forehead wrinkled. Sometimes Berta liked to see her flounder a bit. She was such a clever, accomplished young woman, had been long before she came under Berta’s mentorship. But Berta knew how to push her into new ways of thinking. Proper understanding that she had to work for.
“Nourishment?” Andrea ventured. “This is nourishment?”
“A bairn in the womb does all sorts,” Berta said. “It sucks its thumb. It kicks, it sleeps, it hiccoughs, it blinks. It wees.”
Andrea scrunched up her nose.
“But it can’t feed itself,” Berta continued. “It can’t protect itself. Our colony out there is like a babe in the womb. Our letters help keep it connected to life, while it grows in the dark.”
They arrived at the post box. It was painted glossy red and black, like the old ones people used before the cataclysm. The difference was that this one transported letters underground, where they landed in big decontamination canisters for their journey to another world.
“What d’you write about?” Andrea asked. “If it’s not personal.”
“These days? The community garden. The ins and outs of the village. Reg and Goldie. You and Matt. You know.” She cleared her throat. “Family.”
Andrea looked pleased.
“And facts,” Berta added, quickly. “The sunset over White Water. My recipes for nettle soup and dandelion wine. What about you? Fill their heads with facts and figures, eh?”
“I tried to describe the forest at Neverhulme. It’s such a different life. It’ll be centuries before they have an ecosystem like that.”
Andrea fluttered a kiss on the seal of her envelope when she thought Berta wasn’t looking, and dropped it into the postbox.
‘You should say thank you,’ Grana had said. ‘They left this planet to give the rest of us a chance. They have to make a whole new world, while we just have to patch up the old one. So tell them thank you. Tell them you’ll try not to cock it up. Now get on with it. These broad beans won’t shell themselves. And write neat.’
“Thank you,” Berta whispered, and sent her letter on its way to the new world.
“C’mon,” said Andrea, slipping her arm through Berta’s. “Let’s go buy a peach tree.”
Solarpunk, a relatively new artistic movement, suggests that there is an alternative to the dystopian wasteland of the future envisioned by much of popular culture. In solarpunk worlds our environment is restored and protected. We break the chains of capitalism and patriarchy and create a world where diversity is celebrated and technology (much of which already exists in the real world) is harnessed to provide sustainable energy, food and shelter for human life in harmony with the rest of our ecosystems (Flynn, 2015). In my fiction I like to explore how this may be achieved, looking for inspiration, for example, to the fictional worlds of Ursula le Guin such as ‘The Dispossessed’ (1974) and the economic and political philosophy of Schumacher (1973).
‘Seeds’ is set in a not-too-distant future where difficult choices have been made. The surety of our continued existence appears more likely to rest in a suite of solutions, rather than one cure-all. In Berta’s world some humans left the earth for a new colony, while others remained to repair and rebuild the earth we have shattered. Communication between the colony and its parent planet is scarce – solarpunk is not a utopia where all things are healed and anything is possible, but a realistic vision with a vivid appreciation of the constraints of limited resources.
Berta has always lived in the Green future. To her the cataclysm is history. My hope is that her world will prove aspirational to those of us who live in her past, to make our future a sustainable web of thriving ecologies on Earth and beyond.
Flynn, A. (2015) Interview with Adam Flynn on Solarpunk. [Internet] Available from http://eco-fiction.com/interview-with-adam-flynn-on-the-solarpunk-movement/ Accessed 23/05/2016.
Le Guin, Ursula K. (1974) The Dispossessed. San Fransisco, Harper & Row
Schumacher, E. F. (1973) Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered.,London: Harper Collins
Helen Kenwright writes hopeful speculative and queer fiction. She runs the Writing Tree, offering tuition and support to writers, and she teaches creative writing for Converge at York St John University. Her publications include ‘Women of White Water’ in Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers (June 2018) and ‘Smoke’ in Forest (2018).