Chapter 11 – GMZ

June 24th, 2010 § 0 comments

The morning of the day his wife, Dr. Ruth Bryson, was to arrive Leonard Bryson awoke with an almost adolescent shudder of anticipation. He had not been a reflective man, more a sensation seeker bent on satisfying his own curiosity, a doer, but he had, since retirement, surveyed his personal conduct with a shock. It seemed that since his marriage there was rarely a time when he wasn’t sexually involved with a woman considerably younger than himself. Right at this moment he was sleeping with one of his neighbors, a thirty-year-old woman named Sky who worked a commune with her brother and sister and her brother’s wife and child. Every couple of weeks she’d wander by for a cup of coffee. He liked her to lean against the rail of his porch and lift her skirt while he went down on her. She gripped his white hair in her hands and threw her head back and crowed. It was deeply gratifying. Sometimes she’d reciprocate and he could feel his whole heart’s blood draining into her mouth and then the valley rang with his high hollers. Other times they just had a quick missionary fuck. Anywhere else he would have been suspicious of her motives but up here there weren’t a lot of choices and her chances of seducing an Amish farmer weren’t great, though of course it had been done. He liked Sky, she liked him. He could taste her on his lips just thinking about her.

Leonard didn’t feel guilty, it was how they had chosen to live, but he felt he hadn’t much time left to do something he had always, since the beginning, wanted to do, which was to spend time alone with

Ruth in an actual home. Most of all he wanted to both know and enjoy her the way he imagined he would when they first met, when he didn’t know anything at all about what happens in life and stepped right into it with her. Love, abiding, real, shocking, erotic, jealous, tender, erupted into his 44th year…then lay dormant, like herpes, every few years inflaming him anew. How can one, he thought, so screw one’s life up, so as to miss the central point? As he creaked out of bed and made for the kitchen, barefoot, wrapped in a black fringed, gold sarong, he knew their life would probably not take some sudden turn for the different. But he wished that it could. And then he thought of his dying grape vines, withering in the drought, for which he had no more energy left. He thought of the lemon tree he was coaxing back from death, of Muscatine’s that needed pruning, of an artichoke patch he’d been meaning to mulch, and a drainage ditch that had silted up last spring and had to be cleared before the fall rains arrived, if they ever did. But before he could do any of that, before the sun was fully up, he and his chow Sasha had to go out hunting for signs of the mountain lion.

Leonard’s day began before dawn and ended after dark. There were stretches of time when it was too hot to work, or too windy, and then he would sit for hours in his living room, with the view of the lake and valley and its shelves of old books, reading with only the dogs for company. He stared out onto the dark porch, beneath the overhanging roof, perched three stories up. The dogs were barking to be let out and other dogs and coyotes, across the hills, howled and barked back. A rooster crowed harshly and often. There were the gentle early cheeps and whistles of birds. Down below the terraced vineyard, past an orchard and fields of crops and tall meadows, about a mile off, Keuka Lake was a luminous black, edged with shadow. The sun was below the horizon, turning the sky a dim, periwinkle blue.

Sasha followed him around the kitchen. He poured hot water from a white enamel kettle, blackened on the bottom, onto fresh coffee grounds in a deep mug. The water swirled up to the rim and turned dark. He gave it a stir with a long spoon and watched the grounds slowly settle, then took it out on the porch with a book, 17th Century Naturalists’ Accounts of Siam. He lit an oil lamp and the roof timbers glowed like amber ribs. Mourning doves hoohooed. Jays shrieked from tree to tree and a woodpecker tocked at the old oak spread out over Ruth’s bathtub. His hand fell down to his side and Sasha licked it. He scratched the thick red fur behind her ears abstractedly and sipped his coffee, listening to the nocturnal world sink away into silence and the diurnal one emerge just ahead of the sun. Ruth really was the only thing missing from his life. And soon she would be there.

Greenhouse Mitigation Zones (GMZ’s) were a joint state, business and university effort to reclaim frontier lands that had been abandoned and gone to waste. Settlers in GMZ’s were given free title to land and in return they agreed to restore wetlands to control runoff, plant trees and experimental crops, to find profitable uses for the land in a changed climate, track and protect wildlife, destroy insect disease vectors, and in general bring the land under cultivation and human control and keep it that way.That, at least, was the official explanation and certainly why many people moved there. They were idealists and drifters, people bored and disgusted by city life. Some, like Leonard, were scientists.

But state had other reasons as well for establishing GMZ’s, as any examination of a map will reveal. A hundred and more years ago, as climate related disasters became more devastating and more frequent, populations began to abandon entire towns. The few remaining farms, weakened by generations of successive drought and flooding, finally succumbed to a combination of insects and disease, followed by wildfire. Cities like Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and Binghamton burned to the ground before sinking beneath rising lake and riverwaters.

In the Great Lakes region, from Minnesota to the Hudson, casino gambling collapsed and Indian capital fled to the cities or out west, along with the people who had come to depend on it. In upstate New York this left only the poorest and most traditional people of the Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, behind in villages located on the old reservations, or in isolated settlements, where they had been hunting, farming and fishing for centuries. They were now free to reclaim their land. State neither noticed nor cared; the entire region was written off as worthless.

Next, they annexed any land contiguous with theirs that had been abandoned. Lawyers at state became alarmed at the annexations, which were being repeated elsewhere in the country, wherever similar conditions prevailed, in Maine, Wisconsin, Florida and Georgia, the Pacific Northwest, coastal Massachusetts, Louisiana, all along the Mississippi, St. Croix and Missouri rivers. But all state money was consumed by reclamation projects in the major cities, managing unruly refugees, controlling internal migrations to the west as well as the border crisis with Mexico and international military obligations. State signed the treaty with Haudenosaunee, which became the model for other state-Indian treaties, recognizing their sovereignty on any land they could claim to occupy, contiguous with their own, for more than a generation.

For decades, as the land between Buffalo and Albany became infested with malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus and encephalitis, and the water bit deeper and deeper into the land, things went on in this way. Populations left and each of the Six Nations annexed land. But as the worst of the storms and temperature fluctuations seemed to abate, and the polar ice caps started to re-form, businesses began to look at the waste areas and wonder if they had made a mistake. This was once valuable land and one day would be again. The sovereignty movement was beginning to claim a lot of territory and state was now treaty-bound to recognize those claims. Military officials ruled out a reinvasion as a waste of badly needed troops and ammunition. By establishing GMZ’s the state could compete for open land, under the uncontroversial guise of an environmental reclamation program, with broad leadership support.

Recently Leonard had heard another explanation. Indians believed that the most compelling reason state had for establishing GMZ’s was water. The population shift west to high arid regions with agreeable climates was taxing water supplies. There was a plan in the defense department (the only branch of state still capable of thinking in these terms) to build a series of aqueducts from the Great Lakes, across the country and into the Rockies. To avoid war with Canada, they would secretly drain water out of the Great Lakes and divert it south to the Finger Lakes. To do so they would need the Erie Canal and the rivers, which were increasingly under Iroquois control.

When he had finished his coffee he dressed and took a rifle down off the rack, loaded the magazine and checked the safety. He filled a canteen with water, got a coil of rope and headed out the door with Sasha. The house was built into the hill, and the top floor exited onto a dirt and stone driveway, deeply rutted and parked up with three decrepit trucks, one with a boat hitched to it. Around on one side of the house was the dog pen. Beyond that was the hen house, a stack of weathered wooden crates and a sort of shed built of bamboo, corrugated tin and chicken wire, surrounded by a steel fence. Then there was a pen for three black pigs.

The dogs he had collected over time, a basset hound named Boswell, anonymous pit bulls and retrievers, a border collie named Bruce, a toy poodle named Max, 8-12 at any given time, running back and forth and barking and yapping to be let out. They burst through the bamboo gate when Leonard unlatched it and surrounded him in a lithe, excited stream of noisome fur before breaking up and heading off to hunt for breakfast. He and Sasha walked up the steep path to the road above and then crossed into the cornfield, owned by Mordecai Hertzler. The ground was hard and yellowish grey. Stunted corn stalks brushed his legs. They weren’t green enough for early August.

Leonard wasn’t sure exactly where he would find it, but he had heard the mountain lion in the middle of the night. It was a terrible sound, a disturbing high pitch scream that set every dog barking for a mile around. The nearest woods were at the edge of this cornfield, and he had a hunch he’d find the remains of a deer there.

Sasha ran ahead. There was no better time of day to be out, the wind was soft and cool and he could think. Soon they were in the woods. These were young trees, thin boled, with plenty of undergrowth between. He walked along slowly, following Sasha, smelling the dusty air, listening to the leaves stir. She became suddenly focused and he had to follow her now as she drove in a line toward the spot. Mountain lions had been seen for a hundred years in Iroquoia but he was particularly interested in this one because of its size. The Hertzlers had spotted it several times and the old man insisted it was 3-4 meters, which was huge. Gigantism in animals was of particular interest to Leonard. Everything that survived seemed to get bigger. He had seen six and eight inch cockroaches. Bull frogs 45 centimeters long. Eighty-pound catfish were common and, on the Mississippi there was a 1,000-kilo carp hauled in by a sludge barge. He himself caught fifty kilo Sturgeon in Lake Pepin, but it had hormonal ulcers. The elk and deer were 10 percent larger on average. It was what one would expect with few people and more territory. But in a carnivore it also increased the danger. Bears were especially worrisome at five hundred kilos and 3, 3-1/5 meters tall. He didn’t want to run into any bears without a gun.

The problem was convincing people not to kill off the big predators. The idea of the whole cycle repeating itself sickened him. Indians were more inclined to them. They mostly lived in villages, in houses with fenced yards. Their fields and orchards were at the edge of town and they hunted the forests. But the Amish and the homesteaders might live miles from another neighbor, surrounded like Leonard was by cultivated land and young woods. Mountain lions and wolves could live in the big forests to the north and come down hunting at night. If they ever lost their fear of people there’d be trouble.

The woods were denser now and Sasha’s rust colored coat flickered between the trees. She would circle around and come back and then head on. When he had first come here he went for long walks with her every day. He knew nothing would be as simple as advertised, that the land which was his was probably also claimed by Indians, that there’d be a well established community of sorts, spread out as it was, into which he’d have to fit. It didn’t take long for Dennis Blanpied, the local sheriff, to show up on his motorcycle and inform him that he was trespassing on Seneca territory. Haudenosaunee did not recognize GMZ settlers as legal occupants of the land. He would be allowed to stay. The land was his so long as he could keep it under cultivation and recognize the sovereignty of the Haudenosaunee.

And there was indeed a complex community. Salvage companies, the spawn of rough, get-rich-quick schemes, cruised the canals and lakes in their weird collection of work boats, fueled by salvaged diesel, coal and sometimes even wood, or alcohol. The crews had a reputation for being desperate, borderline criminals. Then there were the Iroquois and their antagonists, pockets of Upstate New Yorkers, descendants of the original colonists, mostly born again christians. Sporadic, open warfare broke out between them until the Upstaters were subdued and scattered. They continued to live in deep resentment, clustered around clapboard churches and dark, violent taverns, praying and drinking. In the high land between the lakes lived the Amish and hippies.

All the land around there was dotted with the failures of earlier entrepreneurs, eccentric millionaires who had tried to start tropical fruit farms but had failed to take into account the periodic blasts of arctic air the region still received. Lake Effect snow and once in a decade blizzards of a couple of metres wiped them out.

Leonard had avoided politics his entire life. The whole business was dangerous and unproductive. Politics epitomized everything about the human animal he despised. He was incapable of that philosophical mood in which politics become the shit of human interaction, unpleasant but necessary, nor did he see it for what it was, the human ecosystem. It was what kept him on the road, away from universities and think tanks or even offices. He could have been an experimental scientist like his wife but lab conditions drove him crazy. He was very much a nineteenth century man. The most pleasing activities he could think of were drawing and describing specimens and their habitats in his journal, or reading the journals kept by other naturalists. He had collected many of these books over the years and gone to great expense to have them shipped up to Keuka Lake; the last twenty k the boxes were dragged by horse cart. These volumes, some three hundred years old, preserved from old libraries by families like his own, quixotic and endangered individuals holed up in ancient apartment buildings, now lined the shelves of his living room, shelves built to hold wine bottles, glasses and flatware. He never understood Ruth’s enthusiasm for the blood and guts of research, office machinations, bureaucratic brawls, competition for dollars. Yet despite his avoidance of politics and people he had always found himself plunged in the life and death struggles of those living in the places where he worked. For from the outside these places seemed depopulated, grim sites of disaster, symbols of the failure of political process to address the most fundamental issues of survival ever faced by modern human beings, especially the failure to understand the impact rising sea levels would have on every single major city in the world. But from the inside they were not only rich with flora and fauna but with that most tenacious weed of creation, humanity. Here life for humans was stripped down to something far more harrowing and basic than one would ever experience in a restored city or suburb. And for every person who chose to be there, there was another who had no place else to go.

Indians had largely recovered their land, it was not even really contested, but what were they going to do with it? That was politics. Religious folks, Holy Rollers as Dennis Blanpied called them, saw the world through 16th century eyes. These could be Indians or Amish, and as Dennis was also fond of saying, “How do you forge a nation out of people who just want to be left alone?”

If they ever forged that nation Leonard Bryson would be its most ardent patriot. It was why ten years ago he was among the first to stake a GMZ claim. He joined a group as naive as the nuts that had tried to plant bananas. Few had a good understanding of the weather, of what plants did well under such circumstances, or even of how to build and maintain a house without reliable power. They would live far from any doctors, with limited supplies arriving via long networks of trade. It was a 19th or even 18th century world they were entering, albeit with fuel cells, solar panels and computers. But to date none of these has ever shot a deer, dug a well or built a road.

Leonard was fascinated. All his life he had studied places just like this, made recommendations, identified mutant life forms and emergent species, but he had never been in a position to stay and do something, to be a part of a people, connected to a land. There was Manhattan of course, but he was no longer of that place; his place was a tent, a factory apartment, a motel room or a berth in a boat. He had slogged through every coastal swamp of the country east of the Mississippi. Hip waders were his second skin. He’d had fevers: malaria, dengue, hemorrhagic, West Nile Virus and encephalitic, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, dysentery. He’d been bitten by bats, toads, snakes and dogs; stung by wasps, spiders, jellyfish and scorpions. Once in Alabama he was forced to flee a fifteen-foot estuarial crocodile. Compared to that Keuka Lake was relaxing. And the 1970’s vineyard, built of 19th century wood, felt like a spawning ground, returned to in old age with no memory of having been there before.

He was born in Manhattan, born into an old matriarchal clan occupying a palatial suite of rooms on Central Park West and 89th street. This world was so contained, so crowded, so loving, he scarcely knew any other existed till at the age of ten he was sent off to school. The apartment and the family of Goulds who occupied it were inseparable. The eponymous Ur couple were Eli and Stella Gould, Bulgarian Sephardic immigrants from the lower Danube, who met and married in 1920 and purchased the apartment in 1947, after Eli, a chemist, invented a process for producing long synthetic fibers cheaply. It was a seven-bedroom spread with three bathrooms.

Upon Stella’s death in 1990 at the age of 97 the apartment passed on to her granddaughter, who had been angling for it, progressively turning her grandmother against each of her siblings and cousins. This granddaughter married and had children with an afro cuban saxophonist. She taught comp lit at Columbia for 40 years. Upon her death, her daughter, Ursula, and Ursula’s lover, Siam, moved in and began collecting scientific texts discarded by libraries and children discarded by their parents. They joined a Wicca coven and established a matriarchal clan centered on goddess worship, ritual lesbianism, scientific research, poetry and the apartment. The apartment was passed on to the oldest female child; male children could stay until married, when they were expected to take their wife’s name and move out. Thus any male child born into the Gould family was surrounded by women from birth, and books.

Nothing in the household conformed to the outside world. They had just hung on somehow, resourcefulness cropping up every other generation or so to meet the threat of eviction for unpaid taxes. As rising sea levels flooded out the city, resourcefulness became a prime survival skill. Each of these old apartments and buildings that escaped demolition for the canals was like a museum preserving some impoverished family, ossified by tradition–dark hallways walked by wispy old women in muumuus and housecoats and sarongs, little underground whorehouses, vessels holding the oil of obscure religious cults, political heresies practiced in bizarrely evasive language, a sort of Alexandrian poetry, radical ideas imprisoned in acrostic puzzles. There were clans of vegetarians, Latin praying catholics who ate fish on Fridays, muslims who slaughtered goats for the birth of a child. The center courtyards were gloomy with neglect, ailanthus breaking up through the cobbles and growing to great heights while within, plaster fell upon each generation. It was a sepia colored, coffee and incense scented childhood of naked old ladies praying over a bowl of roses, libations of sweet wine and foreheads smeared with menstrual blood.

When he thought of it he could hardly breathe. There was never any sun and the dust tasted of the flesh of mouldering Goulds. Iroquoia place on the other hand was an environment in transition. Strange and chaotic, but immensely prodigal in its power to dispense new forms and destroy old ones. The hot lakes and marshes were incubators of mutant life forms. New diseases flourished in weakened populations of plants and animals. The air was thick with flying cockroaches; flies grew fat on the bloated corpses of animal herds felled by epidemics. People could use vaccines, stay indoors, take antibiotics and immune boosters but wildlife could not. Populations of cattle, horses, turkeys, pigs, cats and dogs gone feral surged and dwindled by the season. He registered their numbers and conditions in his journals. To the north oaks had grown into immense forests while maples shrank, leafless, barkless, drowned in bright green pools of water. Rats, mice, raccoon, possum, squirrel, porcupine and skunk flourished.

Even in the time he’d been here the storms had become less frequent and intense and the temperatures were beginning to modulate towards a mean. Big predators, wolves and mountain lions, grew fat on the elk and deer herds restoring some semblance of balance. Moose were again sighted in the north.

Small, independent homesteads and communities could survive these circumstances. Even the Amish, especially resourceful farmers, had gone north in large numbers, to settle on the plains of Canada.

Hippie communes on the other hand had short shelf lives, due mostly to a disproportion of enthusiasm to skill, though some families had first settled in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Some thrived as specialized hunter-gatherer.

The Senecas were the only legally constituted authority in the area, with a system of laws and police to enforce them. But they themselves were deeply divided over just about every question except for one, and that was that all the land that was once theirs would be again.

The lake country was mostly peaceful, but drifters came through constantly and there were bandits, gangs hiding members out from the city. Fights broke out on the road, people were robbed and murdered. Justice was simple, restoration of property, fines, and in the case of murder or rape, if the victim or their family demanded it, death.

Out there, everyone relied upon their neighbors. There was a rule of hospitality. He had ingratiated himself with people, made available whatever records he had, plant specimens. He helped to identify insects and animal diseases. Strangers could always stay with him and get a meal. The Hertzlers helped him rebuild his vineyard and he gave them rides, hauled their hay, corn, sugar and cheese for sale up north. There was a family of Rastas about a mile away, Sky’s commune up the lake, and of course his fellow GMZers. All of these folks could be relied upon to help bring in crops or raise a barn.

They crunched through a clearing. The sun was fully up and he had been walking about an hour. By now Leonard had assumed they would find the kill. Given all the racket he reasoned the cougar had stalked the deer through his property. Then, beyond the clearing, in a stand of cottonwood trees by a dry creak bed, Sasha began to bark animatedly, wagging her tail and poking her muzzle down. Quickly Leonard walked up to her and there on the ground was a huge albino doe, her rump completely devoured. Bloody bones lay collapsed and glistening on the ground, the white pelt pushed up about the shoulders like a shawl. The smell of blood and shit was heavy in the air. Warily he looked about for the mountain lion, above in the trees and at the bushes. It was obviously a big animal. He would have to consult Munkden’s Carnivores of North America to find out exactly how big, but the doe would have stoodtwo metres tall at the head and its spinal cord was cleanly severed. A mountain lion attacking a larger animal would chew through the throat. This one was big enough to have stalked her and when it was good and ready, leapt on her back, and very precisely, controlling her with its paws, found the space between two vertebrae with its teeth and bitten through. The wild cats were remarkably precise. Connections between their jaws and brains were dense and complex. A mountain lion was a two- meter house cat, which should unsettle anyone.

He was tired by the long walk and thirsty. He drank water from the canteen and took the coil of rope off of his shoulders and tied it around the deer and then around his waist. It would take time and he’d have to rest but he was determined to drag the carcass back to the house before vultures or bugs got to it. If he came back for it later there’d be nothing left.

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