This is an excerpt from Winds of Change, the third novel in the Dandelion Trilogy.
They drove south from Oregon along the winding coastal highway, craning their necks at the explosions of surf and stopping every half hour to admire the wild coast. Craggy mounds of eroding sandstone skulked in the fog. Twisted trees clung to cliff sides. Grass-capped sand dunes sported wind-blasted comb overs. Charlie had seen the Atlantic Ocean’s shores with sturdy pines and enduring granite coastlines. The West Coast was another world.
Zadie and Charlie had been working on a new essay at the Democracy Lab, brows furrowed in thought, heads bent close together, the rain pounding on the slate roof, when Zadie’s phone rang. She glanced at the caller id and broke into a smile.
“Kinap!” she exclaimed. “Great to hear from you!”
“Kwey, nitap,” her friend greeted her in the traditional language of the Wabanaki People. “I have a democracy story for you.”
“Sure. About what?”
“Why it’s long past time for you newcomers to Turtle Island to learn how to include non-human people in your notion of democracy.”
Zadie nodded. She’d been wondering how to remind her fellow Americans that, when Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Fathers borrowed their ideas about democracy from the Haudenosaunee, but when members of those nations observed the United States’ system, it was incomprehensible to them. Where were the women? Where were the non-human creatures? How could a democracy that excluded most of the human population and allof the other relatives succeed? It wasn’t democracy. It was simply a new set of rulers.
Kinap brought word that another kind of revolution was brewing, half-hidden, long overdue. The Earth, herself, was speaking, haunting the dreams of humanity. The rivers sang with the rocks. The forests whispered stories into the wind. The animals stared into the startled eyes of humans and would not look away. The land was alive, living, and refused to be objectified and exploited any longer. Nature in all forms – animal, plant, mineral, elemental – demanded that their rights be acknowledged and honored. It was the sacred contract, long ignored by certain strands of humanity, long defended by others.
As the climate crisis showed the dangers of destroying humanity’s one-and-only planet, more and more humans were listening. Indigenous Peoples had never stopped. Humans ignored the beingness of non-humans at their own peril. When they die, we die. It was better to respect them and live.
“A global movement for the Rights of Nature is picking up steam,” Kinap had told Zadie over the phone. “There is a resurgence of these beliefs among people who ignored the beingness of non-humans for centuries. It’s happening at last – and it’s beautiful. Lake Erie has laws that assert the lake’s beinghood and limit the pollution of nearby cities. The Whanganui River in New Zealand has legal personhood status. Ecuador granted Rights of Nature to the entire nation’s ecosystems. Even small towns are doing this; Crestone, Colorado passed a law recognizing the rights of the Crestone Creek. The wild rice beds of the Anishinaabe in Northern Wisconsin have rights as an ecosystem of species. The original inhabitants of Hawai’i are defending sovereignty for Indigenous People and for the islands, themselves. The bioregion of Cascadia is asserting its beingness in the Pacific Northwest, extending beyond state and national borders. A massive revolution is underway – no less profound than the abolition of slavery or overthrowing dictators – it’s about a Democracy of All Beings. Come to the Council and see for yourself.”
She thought Kinap was going to haul them back to Maine to talk, but instead, the Penobscot organizer said she’d be in Northern California for a gathering called the Council of All Beings. She invited Zadie and Charlie to attend. This was not an Indigneous tradition, but rather a way for the newcomers to the continent to begin the long process of learning how to relate respectfully to the community of beings that lived in these lands, too.
As they drove south, Zadie waxed poetic about the possibilities of a democracy that included both humans and non-humans. Charlie wrestled with his skepticism. He doubted the average American was ready for the revelation of equality between humans and bears, let alone with moss or gnats or a riparian woodland. Humans still had trouble seeing other humans as equal. Were they ready for Kinap’s revolution?
“Ready or not, here it comes,” Zadie pointed out.
“Here we come, anyway,” he answered.
The gathering was held at a coastal wilderness area where redwood giants carpeted the mountains, drinking the moist ocean fog. Beneath their hushed canopy, the banter of human voices rose and fell. Thick mats of needles made the earth springy underfoot. The shade cut the dry heat of the September day with delicious coolness. Steep slopes stretched along a dry creek bed. Upon arriving, Charlie and Zadie wandered the forested area in search of Kinap. At a designated campsite, tents were set up. Small groups sat in clusters, talking in easy tones; faces serious, intense, and smiling in turns. At the edge of one such circle, a tall, straight-backed figure spotted them and waved.
“Kinap!” Zadie called out, bursting into a run. She crossed the glade and flung her arms around her friend. Kinap’s laugh ran bell-like through the grove, clear as the hidden birds calling out in the overstory. The first lines of silver touched Kinap’s dark hair. She carried herself with stillness and weighted presence.
Kinap Crow was a protector of water, an Indigenous rights lawyer, a member of the Penobscot Nation. She, too, came from Maine. She, too, traveled the continent helping people protect their communities. She and Zadie had met in Arizona, standing shoulder-to-shoulder as they blockaded a bridge to keep corporate extractors from plundering the water in the underground aquifer. Zadie and Kinap’s friendship touched upon the sacred and transcended the short time they had known each other. Her deep brown eyes focused over Zadie’s shoulder and caught sight of Charlie. She lifted her hand in greeting as he neared. Kinap recognized the strain of years of struggle in his face. She knew the weight of that. Kinap and her people had been fighting for survival for six hundred years. They were from the Dawnland, the place of first contact with European colonizers. The burdens of their souls ran deep. The sorrows they carried were genocides and generations wide.
He will need to learn when to put his burdens down and when to pick them up again, she thought. He did not yet realize how long this road would be. Charlie Rider was sprinting down the first leg of a marathon. If he didn’t rest, he would collapse long before the finish line.
Kinap saw the gaping hole of understanding in the newcomers, the immigrants and descendants of colonists. Millions of people in this nation held the delusion of a settings-and-object landscape. They saw ecosystems as ideas, rocks and water as objects, landscapes as backdrops to their lives, plants as scenery, and animals as dumb creatures of a lesser order than humans. At best, they saw themselves as stewards. More commonly, Americans saw themselves as masters and owners of this land, individually with private property, collectively as a nation, and by divine right according to Bible and arrogant superiority.
They would never survive this way. Any of them. Not the collapsing ecosystems, not the endangered species, not the descendants of colonists, and not the Indigenous Peoples. Unlearning these attitudes was no longer a luxury. Dispelling these beliefs was critical to survival. Kinap had joined both Indigenous-led gatherings and non-Indigenous workshops to help guide this culture back to sanity. The Council of All Beings was one of these.
“Come,” she invited them, “let me show you around.”
They started in the main grove. The gathering place was nestled in the natural amphitheater of the steep slopes of a redwood grove. The “floor” reverberated with impassioned poetry and prose, praise and promises. Charlie and Zadie sat on the soft carpet of needles next to Kinap and listened as one human after another conveyed the messages of mountains and the reflections of bogs. The Council of All Beings brought the world to life. It was a ritual, a ceremony, a creative summit in which the voiceless were given words in human speech. Rocks, rivers, estuaries, bays, kelp, humpback whales, plankton, moss, meadow grass, wild orange poppy, roe deer, spotted owl, blotched tiger salamander; hundreds were given voices through creative imagining and biological science. People translated the whistling bird songs of flocks. Those representing insects brought word from hives, nests, and swarms. One person brought the fog to life, chanting a tidal incantation of the poetry born of water, air, time, and tide.
Barefoot in the dusty carpet of cool earth speckled with redwood needles, a semicircle of speakers gave voice to the western forest trees: Sequoia, Live Oak, Madrone, Jeffrey Pine, Sitka Spruce, Coast Redwood, Douglas Fir, and more. Together, they came from a community of overlapping ecosystems that stretched from Alaska to Northern Mexico, crossing three nation’s borders, encompassing a span that housed millions of humans and trillions of non-human beings. Red Cedar spoke, her voice lilting, words rising in prayer, prophecy, and promise.
“Once, the People sang to us,” Red Cedar said. “Then the sounds of shouts and saws came, cut by the crash and boom of our sisters falling, followed by the silence, the long silence, of clear-cut ground. Humans are short-lived, but we live centuries. We were here before Columbus touched the eastern shores, before the conquistadors and colonists brought the diseases that silenced the original people’s songs. We will be here after today falls into silence. We will hear tomorrow’s music begin. But will you?”
On the slope, Charlie sat stunned, silent and intense, imagining the earth through different eyes . . . or antennae, or echolocation, or senses that defied human conception. Slowly, his human-centric perspective surrendered its stranglehold on his mind. He felt the clenched tightness in his chest that preceded tears. He would never think about his country in the same way again. As the messages went on, the Council of All Beings knocked him off his feet, captured his heartstrings, and swept him away into a world of perception so different from his usual worldview that there was simply no comparison.
“It’s like I was . . . dead . . . or blind,” Charlie stammered as he and Zadie lay curled together that night. “Like I’ve been sleepwalking through my life, a cardboard actor in front of a flat backdrop. I never realized how lonely it is to be human in a world full of mere objects or lesser animals. It’s completely different to see oneself as part of a community of species.”
The next day, they joined the small group sessions. Most of this Council came from the West Coast, but a few, like Kinap, came from further afield to share their expertise. Delegates from the Pacific Northwest came to learn from the riverkeepers of the Southwest. Coastal wetlands defenders exchanged stories with inland water protectors. Forests, deserts, mountains, mammals, fish and fowl, moss and shrubs, prairies and tidal zones: the list of beings was endless. They gathered in different circles, passing talking sticks, listening, sharing knowledge, expressing concerns, and brainstorming solutions.
Representing the Penobscot River – a being she considered her kin – Kinap joined not only the council of rivers, but also the circles of estuary dwellers, the headwaters summit, and the watersheds gathering. She sat in on the mammals discussion and the aquatic plants dialogue. She gave voice to her Indigenous perspective and reminded the descendants of colonizers to acknowledge the wisdom of the original knowledge-holders of the continent. She shared with – and learned from – biologists. She offered legal advice and traditional wisdom.
In all of the conversations, the Earth came alive and rose up with towering beinghood. The planet brimmed with personality and power. A river was not a flat ribbon of water, but an ancient creature that lived over eons, carving the landscape and forming an enduring community of fish and fern, reed and rock, serpent and sand, deer and muskrat, otter and algae, and more.
All those voices had been denied by the conquerors and colonists as surely as Indigenous Peoples’. By relegating beings to objects, creatures to resources, and “nature” to a status separate from “human”, Westerners had killed off the fertility of their imaginations and now strode across barren moonscapes of the mind.
The delegates were a mix of backgrounds. They were scientists and poets, activists and ecologists. One without the other was insufficient. The poets tended to anthropomorphize. The scientists habitually objectified. The two balanced each other, poets dreaming into the beingness of forests and moss; scientists lending detailed research into the ways ferns live, birds migrate, and frogs transform from tadpoles. Geologists spoke for the rocks, thinking in terms of eons. Entomologists spoke for dayflies that lived entire lives in a single day. Both poets and scientists were needed.
“Indigenous Peoples,” Kinap pointed out, “have never separated the two, nor divided the spiritual from the scientific.”
Indigenous Peoples were the original natural scientists, biologists, astronomers, and pharmacists of this continent. The lie of primitivism overshadowed the fact that Indigenous Peoples held both ancestral knowledge and detailed sciences of place. Their cultures and ways of life, forged by millenniums of living interconnectedness, had never separated science from spirit and story. Newcomers to Turtle Island would need to build ways to respect this knowledge . . . and create their own practices for living in right relationship with the rest of the living world.
“You cannot simply adopt our Indigenous customs,” Kinap reminded them. “It doesn’t work like that. That’s why the Council of All Beings – created by Joanna Macy and others – is so helpful. It is an emerging ceremony that helps repair the splintered, or unforged, connection between newcomers and this land.”
Six hundred years of colonizer culture had to be uprooted. Entire ecosystems needed to be protected and repaired. Regeneration and restoration had to be a priority even amidst the climate crisis – especially amidst the crisis. The invasion of the Europeans drastically altered the continent, triggering an environmental shift as dramatic as an Ice Age. Entire species were wiped out, from the passenger pigeon to the bulk of the bison population. Old growth forests were razed to the ground. The Great Plains were turned into corn and soy fields. Cattle grazing replaced antelope and deer. Cities grew like barnacles on whale skin.
“The Council of All Beings would not be complete without the cities,” Kinap told Charlie and Zadie. “For better or for worse, they are some of the most impactful beings on the planet.”
They devoured the resources of a globe. They churned out pollutants into the air and the water. They built mountains of their garbage and riddled the underground with holes in their consumption of minerals, oil, and coal. They sprawled for miles, creating concrete deserts where complex ecosystems once stood.
“We have to include the cities if we want to make change,” Kinap explained as she steered Charlie and Zadie toward a cluster of people sitting on logs. One stared at a signal-less phone then put it in his pocket, shaking his head. Another gaped up at the cathedral of trees. A third nervously joked and wondered if there were bears around here.
“Not with all the noise,” Kinap told him with a wry smile. “Charlie, Zadie, these are the people speaking for the urban cities.”
“Los Angeles!” one said proudly.
“San Fran,” another chimed in.
“Portlandia,” said a third.
“Vancouver, United States,” said another person with a grin. “It’s like having two girls named Sally in the same class.”
At least a dozen cities had come to the council. Like mountain ranges or watersheds, their needs, choices, and behaviors weighed on every other system they touched. Their sewage, electricity, garbage, delivery and transport, heating and cooling, all connected to the surrounding ecosystems. The choices of those massive, human-centric beings rippled like shockwaves through trillions of other creatures, ultimately affecting the entire planet.
“These brave souls have come to learn and bring back the process to their regions,” Kinap explained to Charlie and Zadie. “San Francisco does not stand alone, after all. She is part of an entire region of urban cities: Oakland, Berkeley, Marin, Richmond, and more. In these places, too many humans have forgotten the knowledge of the original peoples and beings: the Chumash, Ohlone, sturgeon, otters, pelicans, and so on. Once, these people and beings far outnumbered even the millions of humans who live there now, oblivious.”
Charlie had never thought of cities as beings before, but if a river or an ocean or a forest was a being, then the behemoth of Los Angeles certainly was one, too. How would a city manage its beinghood in a manner that respected the existence of all others? Would they fight for survival like cornered bears, trapped by lack of food and water? Would they intentionally adapt, and perhaps shrink to a sustainable scale? The questions were endless.
And, Charlie mused, if a city was a being, what about corporations?
“Corporate personhood is not the same as beingness,” Kinap clarified when Charlie brought it up. “Corporate personhood is how rich people push for their companies to enjoy all the privileges of the world’s most entitled people, while avoiding all of the responsibilities borne by regular humans. When I talk about beingness, I’m speaking about honoring our rights and responsibilities in equal measure.”
Kinap gestured to the group of urban representatives. If cities were beings, they had to take responsibility for their impacts even as they asserted their rights. At the Council of All Beings, people could start to think about what rights and responsibilities a human, a city, a bioregion, an ecosystem, a corporation, an element or a non-human being had.
Zadie plunked down beside them on the log and leaned forward, elbows on knees.
“So, how does one represent an entire city?” she queried. It seemed like a daunting task.
“We were just talking about that,” the Latina representative from Los Angeles answered.
Every city’s process was different. One used polling. Another used poetry and art. A third held public conversations. A fourth circulated statistics and studies. They asked similar questions: what does a city need to survive? What is enough? What is too much? How does a city harm others? How does a city help them? What emerges in a city’s dreams? What wakes a city up at night?
They had no right or wrong way to answer those questions. There were no rules when it came to imagining the consciousness of a city. The residents were like gut bacteria dreaming of what a human thinks when she sees an apple. Today, the twelve cities compared notes on how to listen to a being called a City. Yesterday, they had met with the rivers and continental plates. The Seattle Fault, a 50-60 million-year old being (you lose count after that many trips around the sun, the Fault admitted), warned the City of Seattle about the rising geological pressures under the ground. Are you ready for the Big One? the Fault asked. How will you shelter your people when the earthquake of the millennium hits?
In a few days, they would return to their cities with knowledge, warnings, and more questions. Los Angeles would invite the Colorado River to give talks about how she longed to reach the Pacific Ocean once again, how sad it was to dry up and vanish amidst the desert, siphoned off by the city’s thirst. Portland and the Columbia River would gather the watersheds to offer State of the Union addresses. The Pelicans would go on a poetry reading tour, delivering poetic messages up and down the coast, following their migration route.
In other cities, regional convenings would take place every few months. Smaller gatherings and artistic expressions would pop up weekly. In Monterey, the sea otters and humpback whales wrote weekly blogs. In Olympia, the fog and tides planned to spin off that idea and launch a column in the newspaper.
“The goal of the Council of All Beings,” Kinap told Charlie and Zadie as they thanked the cities and moved onward, “is to find ways to bring the voices of the rest of the Earth into human awareness.”
For too long, humanity had objectified and ignored the beingness of all. It was killing humanity . . . and everything else.
“If our species is to survive, we will need to reawaken everyone’s sense of community with the interconnected web of existence. Our process with the Council of All Beings has its shortcomings, but it is a start. Imagine these gatherings in twenty years . . . or a hundred.”
The thought staggered Charlie and Zadie. It was hard to imagine their culture after a hundred years of practicing and using Councils of All Beings. They’d spent over six hundred years denying the beinghood of non-humans (and most of humanity). Envisioning their culture actively uprooting those delusions pushed their minds to the breaking point. They could see how the Council of All Beings served as a training ground, a school for stretching atrophied imaginations out of the narrow constraints of the human-centric worldview.
They crested the slope that served as amphitheater and returned to the full assembly. Sitting down on the soft carpet of pine needles, they listened to the speeches. The messages surprised Charlie. He had expected a litany of sorrow: collapsing ecosystems, species extinction, poisoned rivers, dead forests killed by beetles, extreme droughts and vanishing lakes. As he looked around, he couldn’t see one single being that wasn’t suffering because of humanity’s behaviors. And yet, much of that had already been addressed in small groups and one-on-one conversations. In the full assembly, the messages centered on love and hope. The Beings had more to say than simply haranguing humanity. They had solidarity to offer one another. They had visions and dreams for a new way forward. They remembered the best of humanity from the times before extraction and conquest.
Delivered one after another, these messages moved Charlie more than the pleas of succor against destruction and exploitation. He heard the gray wolf speak of how close the packs came to vanishing, and how they felt when they finally heard the howls of mates in the distance after traveling thousands of lonely miles. He laced his fingers together with Zadie’s and thanked all that was holy that they had found each other. He heard the humpback whales express gratitude tohumans for the web of protections that allowed their numbers to return to the levels of pre-whaling days. He wiped his eyes as the acknowledgement made him choke up with emotion. When the humpback whales sang in solidarity with the endangered blue whales, the tears fell down his cheeks. The rivers stood in interlocking connection, telling the epic story of how the dance of water extended around the entire planet. Shivers shot up and down his spine. Charlie dug out his notebook and pencil, scribbling down fragments of thoughts for later writings:
Who knew that plate tectonics had prophecies about collision?
Moss spoke about restoring mine tailings.
Fungi dismantles toxic waste as a love token for the world.
Eagles are taking down drones.
The marine sanctuary issued an open invitation to the ecosystem to come move in.
The grizzly and polar bear celebrated the birth of their baby pizzly, a new species emerging out of climate pressures.
As the afternoon stretched on, he and Zadie fell into a near trance state, the cumulative weight of the speakers shredding the veil of ordinary thought. They sensed a world hovering on the horizon of reality, a world where humans would pour their time into relearning the extraordinary beauty and mystery of the Earth. This world wasn’t impossible. It hung on the edge of reality. The Council of All Beings helped dream it into existence.
This is an excerpt from Winds of Change, the third novel in the Dandelion Trilogy.
This is an excerpt from Winds of Change, the third novel in the Dandelion Trilogy.
It was a time of giddiness and babble, when the world seemed hopeful and lost all at once. Possibility lurked on the edge of each moment. Disaster loomed across every horizon. With humanity at a crossroads, the clock ticking in the earth’s heartbeat, the Dandelion Insurrection took a deep breath . . . and went flying on the winds of change.
The night hung dark in all directions. Across the pooling black of the lake, distant drunken whoops shot out. A pitched shriek echoed over the water. A crackle erupted in the sky. Starbursts lit up the night. Cheers lifted on the shore. An off-key anthem praised rockets’ red glare. The smell of charcoal briquettes swept past and vanished.
Back when that song was written, it would have been the stench of burning flesh, Charlie thought cynically.
He lay on his back in the bottom of a metal rowboat in the middle of a lake on the Fourth of July. Red and blue hues of fireworks electrified his features in brief flashes. Angular and aching, his face bore the lines of a youth who has seen too much and knows secrets that wake him up at night. His sandy hair gleamed green for an instant as a firework bloomed above him. The crackling pink trails of the explosion turned his blue eyes violet.
The light fizzled. Darkness dropped like a shroud. Charlie Rider disappeared from sight once again. Only the strip of glow tape and the solar lights attached to the stern and bow remained, bobbing like drunken stars stumbling in the black sky. The sound of splashing arose, rhythmic and confident. A murky figure swam up to the boat. The metal pinged with the slap of a palm. Zadie Byrd Gray’s laughing eyes lifted over the gunwale. The vessel lurched in the water.
“You should come in,” her breathless voice enticed.
“It’s too cold,” he answered, not budging from the comfort of the blankets layered in the hull. He grimaced. She’d soak him when she clambered back in, dripping and naked, teeth chattering and skin bluish under the cover of darkness.
“Makes you feel alive,” Zadie urged, releasing the edge of the boat and diving back into the inky waters.
The triple flowers of the next fireworks illuminated her face when she resurfaced. Her black curls were plastered tight against her skull by water-weight. Her pale skin gleamed for a second, limbs strange and froglike under the surface of the lake.
Typical Zadie Byrd Gray, he thought with a small chuckle, skinny-dipping under the Independence Day fireworks.
It had been his idea to row out and escape the mayhem of the shore. His massive extended family had all gathered at the gravely beach for corn-on-the-cob, hotdogs and burgers, and apple pie. His cousins had contributed a devastating vat of homebrew. Zadie’s father, Bill, launched into a tirade on the shortcomings of the Founding Fathers – a lecture they’d both heard a thousand times. When Charlie whispered in Zadie’s ear, she leapt at the chance to slip off. They shoved the boat into the water and rowed out to watch the fireworks. Charlie texted his mother so she wouldn’t suddenly glance up with panic thundering in her chest when she didn’t see him. She’d lost too many nights of sleep over her revolutionary son. He’d been shocked to see grey streaks in her hair when he had returned home to Northern Maine.
The boat tipped as Zadie heaved her torso out of the water. Charlie sat up and countered the weight. He handed her a towel as she rolled in, sopping.
“Brrr,” she gasped, “I swear there’s still ice at one end of the lake.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me in the least,” Charlie answered. Though the spring melt had long passed, the water in Northern Maine wouldn’t lose its frigid edge until August – and even then, only in the top few feet of sunlight-pierced waves.
A good metaphor for revolutions in this country, Charlie thought darkly. They never went deep enough to keep out the chill of centuries of injustice.
Another collection of fireworks boomed overhead.
They’d fought and struggled for so long, shining bold as dandelions, piercing the darkness of the hidden corporate dictatorship, making so much progress, and yet . . . the sheer weight of injustice still thundered like an oncoming train wreck through the lives of the people. The backlog of misery accumulated by centuries of rich people’s rule had a momentum of its own. A nation could only be neglected for so long before the moth-eaten holes of the social fabric crumbled into dust. It would take a hundred years to dig out of the mess of the hidden corporate dictatorship.
And they didn’t have a hundred years.
They’d ousted the corrupt politicians, replaced them with decent enough officials, thwarted a counter-revolutionary take-over, and halted the corporatists’ continued efforts to steal anything that wasn’t nailed down. It still wasn’t enough. He and Zadie had worked non-stop to get bills passed through Congress, held an emergency election for a single-term transitional president, and ensured that hundreds of corrupt officials were prosecuted by the legal system. It had been a herculean effort, worthy of a thousand medals of honor, but the reports kept rolling in, bad and getting worse. Drought in the farmlands. Corporate businesses declaring bankruptcy and vanishing to avoid penalties on a decade of unregulated abuse. Global banking sanctions. Threats from other superpowers. A military on the verge of mutiny. Crumbling infrastructure. Debt balloons collapsing with a pffftzzing whine. Turmoil and chaos.
And now, the rising rumble of fear was triggering a backlash. The law-and-order crowd was calling for stability, traditions, and the good old days. Behind them, the good old boys lurked in the shadows, trying to regain power. There were no easy answers to the problems anymore. It had been so simple to oppose the tyranny of the old regime – everyone despised the hidden dictatorship – but it was so much harder to get people to agree on the solutions and next steps.
Charlie flexed his aching fingers. He’d been writing all afternoon. Dusk had fallen, unnoticed, by the time Zadie unexpectedly slapped his laptop shut. He glanced up, bleary-eyed from staring at the glaring screen.
“Time’s up,” she declared. “It’s a holiday, remember?”
“Humph,” he snorted.
“Don’t start that,” she warned, shaking her black curls. “Suspend your cynicism. Enjoy the fireworks, for once.”
Charlie groaned, but rose to his feet. They had a deal: he could scribble away the afternoon, reflecting on revolutionary themes for his next essay, but then he had to watch the fireworks over the lake with her. Charlie had agreed to come only after she threatened to throw his laptop in the water and run off with one of his cousins who knew how to have a good time.
“We’re national heroes, Charlie, m’boy,” she teased him. “Come grin-and-bear the Fourth of July. At least we didn’t have to go to any parades in DC.”
After his series of blistering rebukes to politicians about the lack of progress on social reforms, their public appearance schedule had cleared out considerably.
“Keep criticizing Congress and we can finally retire,” Zadie joked.
But it was no laughing matter. Revolutionary truth-tellers rose and fell on waves of change, propelled or repelled by the opportunists of the hour. The same people who applauded them for tackling the hidden corporate dictatorship detested them when Charlie turned his mighty pen toward their shortcomings. Charlie never forgot that Thomas Paine, for all his Common Sense, died obscure and alienated from his peers, disillusioned by counterrevolutions in France and the constitutional conservatism in the United States.
As it was, both he and Zadie had been politely disinvited from the Fourth of July ceremonies in Washington, DC. It was an honor they neither sought nor mourned. Instead, they came north to spend time with family – or at least, Zadie had. Charlie cloistered himself in the back bedroom of his grandfather’s camp by the lake and tried to ignore the patriotic fervor of the weekend. It nauseated him. Though he loved his country fiercely, he couldn’t stomach its shows of patriotism.
A starburst of a crackler erupted as they settled down on the bottom of the boat. Zadie curled tight to his side, the chill of the metal muffled by the towels, scratchy wool picnic blanket, and his churning furnace of body heat.
“Did you ever wonder,” she asked, “if we wrote the Constitution today, would we do it the same way? I mean, that was two hundred and fifty years ago. People rode horses to send messages. Most people couldn’t read – heck, most people weren’t even considered people – enslaved Africans were counted as three-fifths human. Indigenous Peoples were considered ‘savages’ that needed to be conquered or controlled by white people. White women were considered the property of their husbands and fathers. The poor, including indentured servants, couldn’t vote or run for office.”
“Most of our political history is the story of how we rewrote our Constitution to include more of us,” Charlie answered.
“Yeah, but if all of us could have participated in the crafting . . . if we designed a new system, right now, what would we, the People, create?” Zadie rolled onto her side and leaned on her elbow, cheek propped in hand, eyes aglow with thought. “Would we stick with a representative republic? Would we include more direct democracy? Would we add anything to the systems of checks and balances? What about consequences – like docked pay or getting fired – for officials who refuse to enact the demonstrated will of the people?”
Charlie could almost see the ideas exploding in her mind as she spoke, fireworks of possibility lighting up the darkness for brief, vanishing flashes. He’d spent plenty of sleepless nights mulling on these same concepts. They always fizzled out by morning. Crumpled paper littered his writing area like fireworks casings on the Fifth of July shores.
“People don’t even know what democracy is,” he reminded Zadie. “They’ve been taught that the unparalleled brilliance of the Founding Fathers gave us the best system in the world, and there’s no need to change it.”
“American Exceptionalism is such a deadly brainwashing technique,” Zadie grumbled, flopping back down on the blanket and setting the boat rocking. “It makes us unwilling to improve.”
“If we rowed back to the beach and asked anybody – except your dad, he doesn’t count – if we should rewrite the Constitution, they’d throw a hotdog at you and dunk you in the lake.”
That was the irony of the Fourth of July: there was nothing revolutionary about it. The nation celebrated patriotic loyalty to an unjust system rather than the revolutionary willingness to upend the world in search of greater equality and justice. On the day that honored the courage of those who defied global superpowers, their descendants followed rote patterns of tradition without deviation, year after year.
Charlie might not have minded if it happened on September 17th, Constitution Day. Then, at least, the obvious self-worshipping rhetoric wouldn’t be hypocritical. But a day commemorating revolution ought to be, well . . . more rebellious. People should spend the day asking the very questions Zadie had just raised, thinking critically about the political system, and working to correct outstanding injustices so that the “truths held to be self-evident” could be reflected in the politics and practices of the nation. They should spend the day advancing the quest for life and liberty. They make sure the pursuit of happiness could be actualized by every citizen, not just by some.
And then, he admitted with a chuckle, after a long day of making meaningful strides toward liberty and justice for all, then we might set off a few fireworks and slice up the apple pie.
“This holiday is the same as all our others – militarized, commercialized, corporatized beyond recognition or meaning,” he grumbled. His bitter comment hung on the summer air, hollowed by the metal boat and softened by the lapping waves. “If we want a deeper kind of democracy, it’ll take another revolution to get it.”
He could feel the curl of Zadie’s smile even in the dark.
“Good thing,” she replied, “we know a revolutionary or two.”
A trio of fireworks lit up the sky, red, white, and blue, one right after the other. Charlie watched the colors illuminate Zadie’s face in shades of warning, hope, and possibility. The red faded last, an uncanny glow of rockets’ glare, a reminder that tradition did not die easily and that patriotism sometimes fought against change.
This is an excerpt from Winds of Change, the third novel in the Dandelion Trilogy.