Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Adam's Story: Nanmin Voyages

This narrative, the second part of “Adam’s Story,” continues using the tools of fiction to explore the five themes introduced in my Archdruid Report post “Glimpsing the Deindustrial Future.” As with the first installment of “Adam’s Story,” the setting is the rural Pacific Northwest during the second half of this century.


It took Adam most of three days to walk from Learyville to the coast highway, the main route through that part of the state and the nearest thing he’d had to a goal when he left home for the last time. The first day, leaving as late as he did, he only walked an hour or so before night closed in and he found a sleeping place under the stars. The second day brought him down out of the hills into the Meeker River valley, where the soil was good enough to make farms profitable and an old rail line ran back inland where the markets were. A train was growling its way east as he came down to the valley floor, though it wasn’t much like the trains in the children’s books he remembered; some local mechanic had reworked two trucks and most of a dozen trailers to run on rails, and the wind coming past the rails brought the fried-food smell of biodiesel with it.

Toward late afternoon he stopped at a farm just off the road and asked the farmer if he could cut firewood for him in exchange for a place to sleep in the barn. The farmer, a stocky man with hair the color of gunmetal and overalls that had seen many better days, looked him up and down and asked, “You can chop wood with one hand?” Adam grinned and said, “You’d be surprised what I can do with one hand.” The farmer just nodded, and took him in back of the farmhouse, where an old stump and a cruiser ax showed plenty of signs of use.

Adam spent the next few hours turning big pieces of wood into small ones – nothing new, he’d done the same chore back home for years, and it just took more cleverness to do it well after the accident messed up his right arm. When the farmer came back, he assessed the pile of firewood Adam had cut, nodded again and called him in to supper with the farmhands. He spent the night in a spare bed, and left the next morning with a grand breakfast inside him. As he said his goodbyes and shouldered his pack, the farmer’s wife handed him a pair of sandwiches neatly wrapped in floursacking, and waved aside his thanks, saying, “God bless you, just do something good for somebody who needs it.”

That was much on Adam’s mind as he walked west that day, with the rail line on one side and the river winding back and forth on the other. Tang of salt in the wind spoke of the sea, and old pilings rose from the water, last trace of sawmills and canneries that swung through their own trajectories of boom and bust long before anyone realized the society they served was on the same track. Farms became sparse, and stopped altogether just before the river opened into tidal marsh. The railway ended at a crumpled mess of timber that had been a bridge a long time back, but the road ran on, and a battered sign told him the highway was only a dozen miles further.

Those dozen miles took him away from the river, up into low sandy hills covered with shore pine that huddled down against the sea winds. The whole countryside looked deserted, but as he followed the road he noticed signs of movement off in the woods to either side. Birds fluttered up from among the trees, startled; now and then he saw what might have been a human shape slipping between the trees; once, as he topped a rise in the road, he saw someone half a mile or so in front of him, who saw him at the same moment and hurried out of sight under the pines.

Nanmin, Adam thought. He’d heard about them, back when Learyville still had the odd visitor or two. He made sure his father’s pistol was handy in his coat pocket, and kept walking.

He reached the coast highway as the sun was sinking into offshore fog. A cluster of buildings had been at the intersection once – a gas station, a cafe, and a shop selling tourist gewgaws, all brandishing gaudy signs – but the first two had fallen down and only the last still stood. He paused, decided that the shop would make a better place for the night than some hollow under the trees, and he still had both sandwiches, too. He went to where the door had been, peered into the shadows inside, stepped through.

Movement to one side, flash of metal in the dim light: startled, he scrambled away from it, got the rusting wreck of an old shelf between him and whatever it was. As his eyes adjusted to the light he found himself facing a young woman, Asian by her features, crouched against the other wall of the little shop with a big knife in her hand. Despite the weapon, she looked as frightened as he felt. Next to her lay another woman, a little older, slumped on the floor on a ragged blanket. The sick sweet smell of infection hung in the air.

“Hey,” Adam said, raising his good hand in what he hoped was a nonthreatening gesture. “You don’t need to do that. I’m just traveling – I’m not with the government or anything.”

The woman did not move at all. Eyes narrowed, she watched him, kept the knife between them.

“Do you know any English?” he tried.

After a long moment: “Yes.”

He wanted more than anything else just then to bargain his way to the door and sprint out into the evening, but a memory of sandwiches and the words of the farmer’s wife stood in the way. “Your friend doesn’t look so good,” he said a moment later, then: “Look, I’ve got medicine with me that might help. I can share some of it.”

A terrible uncertainty showed in her eyes. After what seemed like a long time, she moved warily to one side and lowered the knife a little. “My sister,” she said.

He was kneeling beside the woman and pulling his pack off his back before it occurred to him that the other one might stab him once his back was turned. No help for that now. He made himself finish the motion, fished around in the pack for the bottle of tincture old Carol Price had given him, brewed from herbs and raw alcohol; he’d seen it save lives more than once. He set the bottle on the concrete floor, turned to the sick woman, unwrapped the stained cloth bandages around one lower leg, drew in a sudden sharp breath when he saw what was underneath.

“Very bad,” the other said – a statement, not a question.

“Yes.” A ragged gash ran half the length of the lower leg, with pale puffy flesh and a reek of infection around it. Telltale red streaks of blood poisoning ran up the leg from there. Adam took the woman’s wrist and checked her pulse – hurried, shallow, uneven – then touched her forehead, felt fever burning hot under the skin. He sloshed some of the tincture onto the gash, then said, “Do you think we can boil some water?”

“I have no pan, no water.”

“I’ve got both. If there’s dry wood...”

“Yes.” What was left of a wooden shelf, kicked to bits and split up with her knife, made a small bright blaze that got water boiling promptly enough. A souvenir towel from the back of the shop, dipped in boiling water and then cooled just enough not to burn, gave him what he needed to clean the wound, and two more made a new bandage once he’d sloshed more tincture on it. The younger woman got some cool water down the sick one’s throat, with a few drops of the tincture in it just in case. Still, the fever stayed and so did the red streaks.

The younger woman put a few more bits of wood on the little fire, then seemed to slump into herself, as if the effort had burnt up the last energy she had. Still remembering the farmer’s wife, Adam asked, “Do you want a sandwich? I’ve got two.”

That got him a startled starved look that made him wonder how long it had been since she’d last had a meal. “Please,” she said, and took the sandwich, but waited until he took the other before starting to eat. The firelight made her face hard to read; she was looking at him, but what thoughts moved behind the eyes he had no idea.

He checked the older woman once he’d finished his sandwich – pulse the same, fever maybe a little worse – then sat down by the fire again. A long silence passed, then: “You are traveling.” The words were a question, though it took Adam a moment to figure that out. Guessing at the limits of her English, he tried to tell her a little about Learyville and why he’d left it to the bears and the ghosts. The fire burnt low as he talked. Afterwards, she fed a few more bits of wood to the flames, let another silence pass, and then started talking about herself.

Her name was Haruko, Sumigawa Haruko, and her older sister was named Fumiko. They’d both been born in Osaka, went to good schools, and then got evacuated to the island of Shikoku when the Sino-Japanese war broke out, which was why they survived when the war went briefly and disastrously nuclear and Osaka took a Chinese warhead. They’d learned to work the rice fields, since that was the only work to be had in a country spiralling down toward bare subsistence. Still, even after the huge losses from the war, Japan still had far more people than its farmland would support, and eventually they got a polite letter from the government telling them their food rations would be discontinued in the new year and they should make other arrangements.

So they’d found a ship that was being fitted out for nanmin, refugees, and was still taking passengers, bartered their remaining ration coupons for rice and a few other foodstuffs for the voyage, helped sew makeshift sails and scrounge enough fuel to get the ship out of harbor and power the final rush onto the beach, and put themselves in the hands of the winds and currents. The voyage had been lucky; they’d had rain enough to keep the water tanks from running dry, good strong winds, and they hadn’t run out of food until close to the end.

Still, when one of the ship’s makeshift ladders broke under Fumiko and slashed her leg open, they had no medicine to treat the wound, and infection set in. She’d been delirious when the ship plowed up onto the beach, and had to be hauled down the ropes by some of the others, who carried Fumiko up to the old shop and left her and Haruko to fend for themselves. With so little to go around and so many dangers to face, the ones who might survive dared not burden themselves trying to help those who certainly would not; it was as simple as that.

A sudden harsh noise as Fumiko started breathing again broke into the narrative. It was only then that Adam realized she had stopped breathing maybe a minute before. He checked her pulse and fever again, listened to the telltale rhythm as her breathing slowed gradually to silence and then started up noisily, only to slow once again. He knew well enough what that meant, and a glance across the fire to Haruko’s face told him that she recognized the sign as well.

“I hoped – ” Haruko began but her voice broke. Then: “I will pray to Amida.” She moved to sit next to Fumiko’s head, began murmuring a quiet repeated prayer: namu Amida butsu. Only later, as he woke from a doze, did Adam realize that she’d left her knife lying on the floor near the fire.

Fumiko died just as the first traces of morning came filtering in through what was left of the shop windows. Adam gathered from what Haruko said that cremation was the Japanese custom, but that wasn’t an option – “Too much wet in all the wood,” Haruko said – and his folding camp shovel proved sturdy enough to dig a serviceable grave in the sandy soil behind the shop. Afterwards, Adam filled his pack again and glanced at Haruko, wondering how to ask the question he wanted to ask.

She forestalled him. “Where are you going?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted.

Something too faint and fragile to be called a smile showed on her face. “That is a good place, I think.” That was a question, too, but the only answer Adam could think of was to nod and indicate the door with a gesture: shall we?

Outside the sun struggled up out of fog. The coast highway headed off in two directions. “South, I think,” Adam said. “North there’s not much but wilderness for quite a ways.” Haruko nodded, as though that settled it, and they started south on the cracked but serviceable blacktop.

They’d gone no more than a hundred yards when the fog lifted to westward, swirling and tearing open as the sea wind clawed at it. From the highway the land sloped toward the beach down below, and there, with its bow driven up onto the sand, was the vast black shape of Haruko’s ship. Adam had expected a fishing trawler or the like, certainly not a huge container vessel the size of a small town. Nor had he expected to see another shape like it in the middle distance making purposefully in toward the shore.

“Japan has many people,” said Haruko behind him, “and many ships. Not much food. Each year, more will come.”

Adam stood there for a long moment, watching the future approach, until the fog rolled back in and he and Haruko began walking south again.


FARfetched said...


The invasion from across the Pacific ran a little later than I'd expected. But in a world where people are few, those that meet will stick together for at least a little while. It's how we're wired, eh?

Matt said...

Great imagery on the last part Greer, I could just see the re-fitted container ships through the fog, kind of like the first scenes of invasion, yet a quiet one, into a now quiet country. It is a seen of desolation, but also of changes, mostly of sadness, but hope glitters through, it seems like it could be so real. Why did you choose Japan to be nuked again, just wondering?

John Michael Greer said...

Farfetched, there have been boats coming over for twenty years or more -- recall that Adam knows the word nanmin and has heard accounts of them. But of course you're right that people tend to seek community, and when you've got people who have nowhere to go and nobody else to go with, that's all but inevitable.

Matt, thank you! As for Osaka's fate, I expect there to be small nuclear exchanges over the next century -- recall the briefcase nukes punctuating the war in the earlier sequence; the likelihood of major military clashes between China and Japan seems very high to me once resource constraints bite hard, and it'll likely be very hard to keep the fighting conventional.

Geoff said...

This puts me in mind of a book I read not long back, The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson. Whilst based upon a different history it contains a similarly themed vision of a salvaged future. Worth a read if one is interested in covering a lot of ideas about how the future may turn out.

Mike said...

I've been reading your blog postings for a while now and I like the story. I know its a bit of nit picking but wouldn't Kamchatka and Alaska be easier for the Nanmin to reach rather than the Pacific North West? Given global warming and he associated climate change wouldn't places nearer to Japan be more attractive to the Nanmin?

John Michael Greer said...

Geoff, thanks for the reference -- Robinson's one of the few current SF writers I enjoy reading.

Mike, they'll be arriving there, too, but the main North Pacific currents arc past Japan and then head east to the west coast of North America. When I was a kid you used to be able to beachcomb Washington state beaches for glass floats that broke loose from Japanese driftnets on the other side of the ocean. Since the nanmin don't have a lot of fuel to spare, and are following the currents, a lot of them will be ending up at various points on the west coast from Alaska southwards.

RAS said...

Good post, JMG. I see my crystal ball was correct. ;-)

One thing I can't fathom though is why there wasn't any kind of organized resistance to the Nanmin landings. Given the current level of vitirol in much of the country against Mexican immigrants, I imagine some people at least would react badly to an invasion of Japanese immigrants. Has the government disintegrated that badly in these stories? Or is that why the Nanmin are landing on unoccupied strecthes of coast? Just curious.

yooper said...

I'm really beginning to like you're story John! Writing a collaspe is one of the hardest things to do....alot like writing an obituary of someome who has'nt died yet.

I'll refrain of comment until, I've "heard you out". At this point you have me on the edge of my seat, wanting more!

John Michael Greer said...

Angelo and Awl, thanks for contacting me about the multiple postings -- glad to know the issue was technical in each case.

Rebecca, organized resistance is hard to arrange when the country is in a state of civil war (as mentioned in the first part of the story) and much of the coast is pretty depopulated. Much the same thing happened when the Roman empire went to bits. More on this next week.

guamanian said...

Thank you for putting a very human alternative face on the 'Chinese Pirates' that Jim Kunstler expects to ravage the west coast!

I believe that most new arrivals from Asia will be much as you describe... it is consistent with what already happens occasionally as economic refugees from poorer parts of China arrive by ship, and no doubt the same forces will drive arrivals from Japan, Korea, and elsewhere, post-peak.

Of course Kunstler's 'Pirates' may also arrive in the Pacific Northwest -- but if they do I expect they are far more likely to hail from San Diego on former USN warships than from the seaports of Asia.

It is historically interesting that only a shift in Chinese policy in the late 1420s stopped the Treasure Fleets from sailing... if they had continued, the demographic history of North American immigration might have been very different... and perhaps a JMG analogue (Probably the leader of a little-known taoist tradition) would be blogging a Peak Oil scenario in Mandarin about the arrival of starving Basques on the east coast of the continent.

So much of history is only 'obvious and natural' well after the fact!

Thanks, and looking forward to the next installment.

RAS said...

Thanks JMG. Where I'm at (Northern Alabama) there are all ready so many hate crimes against Hispanic immigrants -most of which go unreported, sad to say -I just can't imagine there not being a backlash against a flood of immigrants. Then again, I live in the part of the country where a lot of people still keep white sheets in their closet, so keep that in mind.

A few posts ago we were talking about the issue of collapse vs. apocalypse vs. slow decline. If I may, I'd like to put on my psychologist's hat and make a few comments about this as I've been thinking about it.

First, on the issue of people taking the thought of "collapse" and linking it to apocalypse, I think that reaction is psycholgoical, and not just because it fits in with our dominant narratives. Most people do this and channel it into one of two reactions: the survivalist starts thinking about guns and forty years of baked beans, and majority of people don't do anything. Why? Because an apocalypse, by its very nature, renders most people very dead. And if that's going to be the case, why bother doing anything about it? The same thing happened during the cold war when many people refused to make any preparations for nuclear war.

Second, the "slow decline" scenario leads to another reaction. If society will enter a slow decline, then most things will disappear over the course of generations, so why do anything? A very normal reaction most people have to things not in the immediate future.

It takes another kind of perspective to step back and see that there are many levels between businees as usual, slow decline, collapse, and an apocalypse. Furthermore, that decline and collapse will happen in different rates at different times in different places, and sometimes both will happen (even multiple times) to the same place.

It takes another step back to see that even if business as usual could continue indefinitely, one has a moral responsibility to future generations to cut back on petroleum consumption. Btw, I do think some of us who read this blog (I'm only 24) might live to see the tail end of the oil age.

I apologize for the length of this comment, and I hope its okay. You asked me to think about what I believe will be the future of the rest of the country, and I did (though I'm not a writer like you) but this post is enitrely to long so I'll comment about that later on.

Dwig said...

Reading the scene where Adam treated the older sister, my immediate reaction was "wasting precious medicine". On second thought, though, I realized it wasn't a waste; it was an investment. It bought a measure of trust, which was even more precious.

This story is starting to remind me a bit of Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower", which has similar themes, particularly migration and political disintegration. (I haven't read the second book in the series, "Parable of the Talents", and unfortunately she died before publishing the planned third book.)

Matt said...

There's some of that neighborly kindness I was hoping for! It makes a lot more sense, I guess, for those that are better off -- with a train and good soil -- will be more eager to help. Good stuff, there.

On a related, more general note, there's a fascinating article posted on Kunstler's blog from the Energy Bulletin that, I think, offers a good bit of creedence to John's vision of a long, slow collapse. Of course, the question then becomes, when does a collapse just become a change? If something like "peak oil" or what have you, are really going to take 150 years to really have a massive effect, it seems I might have to return to the rush of optimism I felt after reading McDonough and Braungart's Cradle to Cradle. With that much time, there's time for organized change. Ah, I ramble. Still, the above-linked article is a good read.

I guess there's a new "matt" on the scene. He's welcome to my name, really, as I post so rarely. I guess I'll have to devot more energy to figuring out how to change my display name. Oh well.

dZed said...

Well, that wasn't too hard of a name change, after all.

I'm enjoying the story, by the way, John.

Danby said...

dwig said:
Reading the scene where Adam treated the older sister, my immediate reaction was "wasting precious medicine".

That's exactly the sort of self-centered, seemingly sensible, long-term counter-productive attitude that's more destructive than collapse itself.

John Michael Greer said...

Guamanian, very true -- history is the realm of the contingent and unforeseen, and what seems inevitable in retrospect is usually just the way things happened to turn out.

Rebecca, of course there will be what we'd now call "hate crimes" against the nanmin, or for that matter the other groups moving into the emptying regions of what is now the USA in the future history I'm outlining here. Keep in mind, though, that in an age of mass migration that can cut both ways. Your local good ol' boys may be less eager to mess with the local Hispanic population when the number of Hispanic people locally tops the number of Anglos -- something that's pretty likely down the road.

Dwig, my guess is that a lot of people will go through the same first and second thoughts as they make the transition from a mass society where people can play at individual autonomy, to a society of communities where people once again get their faces rubbed in the fact that they depend utterly on each other for survival.

Matt/Dzed, you comment:

Of course, the question then becomes, when does a collapse just become a change?

Okay, now you're starting to get it. But it's not going to take 150 years to "really have a massive effect," unless you define "massive effect" in apocalyptic terms. Economic troubles on the scale of the Great Depression, wrenching political changes, the loss of at least some of the more resource intensive technologies we use today, and probably the beginning of population contraction will likely hit in the next decade or so. But you're quite right -- it's simply change, just change going in an unfamiliar direction. More on this in a future post.

Danby, nah, that's exactly the sort of self-centered, seemingly sensible, long term counterproductive attitude that makes decline and fall inevitable. More on this, too, in a future post.

Heather said...

This is actually about the first part of the story (sometimes it takes me a while). In all the debate about the effectiveness of primitivism vs. agrarianism, it seems to me the focus was protesting that real primitivism (working in a group to hunt/gather, as trained people, not romantics who haven't read the basics) was better than current, modern agriculture (as opposed to various permaculture models).

Maybe I missed it, but the protesting primativists didn't really use the point in the story that the soil around Learyville, combined with common modern agricultural methods, was as much a failure as the unknowledgeable back-to-nature people.

As for them, they lacked knowledge and experience both. I'm not a primativist myself, but if I were thinking about the possibility of living in the woods, you can bet I wouldn't try it until I'd done some serious reading and learning -- and found some other people with the knowledge and experience as well. Pure foolishness otherwise.

What nobody commented though was about the one lady who was able to make a go of it. She was probably using permaculture methods, or something similar. She also knew how to make useful herbal remedies. But she wasn't able to pass that knowledge on to anyone, from what I can tell. So when she died, her knowledge died with her.

That's probably the saddest part of Part I -- the loss of knowledge.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

This comment has been removed because it linked to malicious content. Learn more.

John Michael Greer said...

Heather, let's please not get back into the pointless quarrel about neoprimitivism. History will show which viewpoint is right; debating it now won't.

Mauricio, many thanks! This is a great collection of examples for the way the strategy of salvage might be made to work in our own future. It's particularly worth noting how much of it uses salvaged parts as they are, rather than going through the more energy-intensive processes of working metal.

Heather said...

Sorry, wasn't trying to debate bring back that debate. Perhaps I should have just talked about Carol Price. My main point was the loss of her knowledge and experience.

dark matter said...

Great setup.

The dropping of the A-bombs on Japan was a show-off, an empire's bar-mitzvahs. While the prospects of a nuclear war are real in the face of psychotics in power, the targets are unlikely to be resource-restricted countries like Japan. In any case, the story does not need a nuclear war...

I believe a dysfunctional world torn apart by huge distances and technological disrepair will present few opportunities to wage a profitable nuclear war.