Professor Richardson looked at Abby in surprise, and nodded. “So you’ve noticed that too! Yes, climate change denial is based on loyalty to a fossil fuel culture, and is related to some very explosive issues: ethnicity, race, heritage, some people’s sense of personal identity.”
“Yeah,” returned Freddy Baez with a weary sigh. “You mean white nationalism, the white power movement, a deeply rooted demon.”
Amy Zhi spoke for the first time. “It’s true. This is a dangerous moment. A lot of the work we’ve done over many years... it’s all up in the air now. Governor Palmer has approved my father’s ideas because they save money. The Parks Department more than pays for itself. But now the governor’s big donors don’t like what they see. We’ve been hiding in plain sight, but that era is over. We have to defend ourselves. My father could be fired. The biogas operation could be closed down, especially the part in Half Moon. The entire population of Rivergate could be driven out of their homes. We know what that means. The governor got a lot of pushback after the Sonny Walker interview, but I’m sure they haven’t given up. So I agree with Abby. We have to defend ourselves.”
Amy was dressed like Sara in a STAFF tee shirt and jeans. It’s like they’re they’re in uniform, thought Abby, soldiers ready for their orders.
Ricardo leaned forward, closer into the circle. “I’d like to get back to Freddy’s idea: We need a story. Perhaps I can help. Many of you know I have a chance to present our ideas at the coming United Nations conference. The preliminary gathering will be in River City in just a month. The conference itself, with representatives from over a hundred nations, will meet in River City in two months. I must present my paper and recommendations on Tuesday the 25th of September. I intend to be ready with an analysis of what we’ve accomplished, including the social, political, and economic assets and obstacles, as well as the technical problems. I need to visit locations where biogas is produced and have access to people and resources. Who works on your project? Who adapts cars and furnaces and stoves for biogas? How much does it cost? Is the supply reliable? What becomes of the compost? I’m in a rush just like the rest of you. And make no mistake; this will be a story, and we’ll all have to decide how to present it.”
Freddy’s brown eyes were full of fire. Abby had never seen his drive, his intensity before. “So, Abby,” he said. “Can we visit these biogas sites? Can we interview people, and run a series on the economics and legalities of the operation? Can we estimate the practical implications for our audience? It can’t be too abstract. We need on-the-ground details, personal stories.”
“To all of that, the answer is yes. Lluvia, Phoebe, and I are here to work with you, and help present Half Moon Park, Rivergate, the West Isle, and Fisher’s island as models of the way things can be done. You can talk to farmers in Middletown already producing their own biogas. And yes, you can talk to people who deliver fuel, adapt engines, and have to get paid for what they do.”
“Amy,” Freddy asked, “how does that sound for you?”
“It has to be done. But... you understand, my father will not participate. No interviews, no emails, no statements for the press. Don’t expect his office to reply. His position is that this effort is economic, not environmental. His office will say only one thing: Biogas saves the taxpayer money. The Parks and Sanitation Departments pay for themselves. That’s our strong suit, and it’s all you can expect from him.”
“I do believe,” returned Freddy, “that Amy has just given us a key element of the story. The people who make this possible are not rich for the most part. This project has blossomed without major corporations and vast incomes for executives. We’re talking about a local, grassroots industry that can be replicated. I think that storyline suits both Ricardo and myself.”
Ricardo refilled Freddy’s wine glass. They clinked glasses, and raised them to the whole group, who returned the toast with coffee cups.
In the silence that followed Lluvia spoke for the first time. Her voice was very quiet, and the group listened closely. “I volunteer to be a guide for any group wanting to see any part of our biogas, composting, and agricultural methods. I won’t volunteer for interviews, but I’ll find people who will volunteer. We can go to Rivergate, the West Isle, and Fisher’s Island. We can visit homes and collection sites, and look at boats, stoves, cars, trucks, and furnaces that run on biogas. But someone else will have to give permission and guide reporters visiting Half Moon Park.”
“Bennie Nimzowitsch is our Park Manager,” Amy told them. “Speak to him first, and he’ll ask for permission up the bureaucratic ladder. Ultimately the governor will have to give permission or not. There are pluses and minuses for him either way. We’ll just have to wait and see. But meanwhile, the Rivergate part of the story will be a wonderful place to start.”
Ricardo looked around the circle. “We’ve come a long way in less than an hour. I haven’t mentioned the Evansville part of the picture because we’ve got that covered. Mayor Ellis has been increasing purchases of biogas from the park system for seven years or so. Henry is familiar with the technology and the politics.” Ricardo nodded to the young assistant professor.
Henry thanked Ricardo and gave out his phone number and email address. “I’m eager to know all of you,” he said. “I’m doing my graduate thesis on this subject, and hope to visit your sites and include you in my research. This is a wonderful opportunity, and I’m very grateful.” He looked around the room with hesitant, vulnerable blue eyes, obviously pleading for acceptance.
Ricardo gave people a moment to reassure Henry, and then said, “I’m sure you’re all hungry. Let’s trade email addresses and move this train forward.”
Abby frowned. “There’s a problem. We’ve been warned not to carry cell phones. We’ve been warned of efforts to hack our phones and computers. So to reach Lluvia or anyone in Rivergate, call Sonny Walker’s secretary, named Chris. Sara, maybe you can help move this along.”
“I’m on it. This is my department. Don’t worry about a thing. But what about Sulay and Nico? Where do they fit in?”
Abby smiled. “Phoebe and I are supervising them. We need them in Middletown. But tomorrow morning they’ll be here with the soccer teams for the games in your stadium.” “Got it. I’ll find them. Keep the news coming.”
“I’ll know where they are,” Phoebe told her. “I’ll help you.”
No one spoke. People looked at each other, wondering if Phoebe’s words had concluded the meeting. But Ricardo leaned forward again. “I apologize, but I need to ask two more questions, and please, answer them any way you wish, or don’t answer them at all. First, I’m under pressure from my colleagues in other fields – history, anthropology, archeology. They want to know who could help them find sites to study and people to interview in Rivergate and the forest preserve. I tried to be polite and said I’d look into it, but I certainly have promised nothing. But now I ask: Can any of our professors interested in the history of the Half Moon Valley, or the archeology of the Valley, speak to any of you about any information you may have?”
“No,” replied Abby. “We are in no position to guide any such inquiry, and will prevent it if possible.”
“I thought so. Rest assured, I will offer nothing. And I’ll warn you if anything of the kind is moving forward.”
Abby gave him a smile. “Thank you. And be aware that the forest preserve is run by the state, and I believe will fall under the authority of Amy’s father. We’ve been protected so far.”
“Finally,” Ricardo went on, “I’m curious if there is an important reason why all of you...” he was looking at Abby, Phoebe, and Lluvia, “have suddenly made this generous offer to partner with us.”
The three glanced at each other. “I can think of one reason,” Phoebe said. “We’ve been through a lot of stress and trouble over the last two months. It’s been a shocking experience. We’ve had to learn to cope very fast.”
Ah! thought Abby. Go for it! Tell them.
“We’ve tried to do things that are really quite ordinary, like build a community around the stores in our town, offer activities that people might like, especially for teenagers. These are things I grew up doing, things I had considered normal, like having festivals, music concerts, a soccer league, listening to our local minister and supporting the mission of the church. But we’ve had to realize that we’re facing very powerful, wealthy, and determined enemies. Problems have opened up that have been hidden for decades. We’ve had to fight for basic community goals. Freddy has seen some of this. What Sara called the mysteries in Middletown have arisen around what I used to consider ordinary small- town events.
“Now... you could say that Reverend Tuck’s sermon, the one where he called climate change a sin... well, I do see that many people will regard that as threatening. But doing nothing about it is even more threatening. We’ve realized we have to fight a larger political battle. What I’m interested in is that battle. Middletown is a microcosm of the wide world. So I ask: What happens tomorrow morning? How can we contribute? How do we follow up? Can we get involved in events surrounding the United Nations conference? We’re opening up because circumstances are forcing us to get together and stand for something, or our world will become an unrecognizable nightmare.”
Sara clapped. “Please, all three of you! Tomorrow after the gathering at Hamilton Hall, our group will meet, discuss the day’s events, and plan for the future. You’re all invited. And please, help us at tomorrow’s event. It’s an effort to create dialogue and understanding between the trustees, students, and faculty. We want the trustees to share power with the college community, and not act like the students are children and the faculty are absent-minded professors, lost in abstract research. We’re in this together. And I’ll have to speak on your behalf, and present ideas from this meeting. But I don’t have the authority and respect to respond to the trustees’ presentation. Ricardo, that job can only be done by you. I wish we could help, but you know you’ll be on the spot.”
“Don’t apologize, Sara. I’ve been eager for this job for years. If only I can be on the spot a dozen more times in the next few months! What good is Evansville College, what good is being a professor, what good is having a new department called Energy in the Age of Climate Change? It’s time to plan, organize, speak up. It’s time to act.” He slammed the flat of his hand onto the table.
They all stared in surprise.
“Okay Ricardo!” cried Sara with a big smile. “We’re with you.”
Freddy rubbed his hands together. He had a gleam in his eye. “This is why I entered the news business! Are we all on board?”
“Yes! Of course! Absoluuuutly!” Their voices responded at once.
“Any more questions?”
No one spoke.
“Thank you all!” Ricardo stood up. “Let’s eat!”
Sara and Amy departed immediately after the meeting, saying they would grab a sandwich in the student center and eat with the organizers of tomorrow’s gathering. “Sorry to insist on that word, ‘gathering’,” Sara told them. “But a street demonstration and protest would be a disaster for us. We’re doing all we can to debate policy, backed up by a well-behaved crowd. We need the right kind of media attention.”
Amy pulled on her sleeve. “Come on! They’ll be finished before we get there!” And they were gone.
Lluvia, Phoebe, Abby, and Henry Tims took a table together in the luxury of the faculty dining room. Henry presented himself as their guide for the evening, and offered to escort them to the gallery. An hour later, Lluvia, Phoebe, Abby, and Henry Tims were walking past the college dormitories looking for a building known as the A.D. – short for Art Department. There they expected to meet Alex Johnson, who would give them a room for the night. “We’re just in time,” Henry told them. “The gallery closes at 9.” He led them through the glass door of a modern, very wide, two story building with enormous windows.
A few students were talking in the lobby. “It’s got nothing to do with modern art,” argued one voice. “It’s some kind of weird throw-back. I don’t know why they’re giving it any attention.”
“It’s gets attention because it’s relevant,” retorted another voice. “He raises conflicts. Gender, climate change, poverty, sex, religion...”
“You see all that? I don’t... and he can’t even draw. People just buy it because it’s cheap.” Henry led them into a clean white room with a polished hardwood floor, immaculate white walls, and a ten-foot ceiling with track lighting. Abby counted fourteen prints on thick white paper held on the walls at eye level with pushpins. They were all deep red or brown. A few were fairly small, but the majority were pictures about two by three feet printed on enormous sheets of paper. At the far end hung a tapestry about two and a half by three feet, showing an abstract female figure on a wavy background that reminded Abby of small prehistoric rock sculptures she had seen in some book in high school. Other abstract symbols appeared across the upper six inches.
On another wall she was not surprised to see the red print of Noah’s Ark that had been displayed on the Students Against Fossil Fuels banner. A dragon or snake ran across the top of the design, turned downward at the corner, and became a head vomiting the flood covering the bottom of the picture. The identical dragon appeared in the next, even larger print. But there it was spitting fire onto what looked like the skyline of River City. Fires were burning in many places. Figures were fleeing the nightmare.
“Well, what d’you think?” asked Lluvia.
“They look like visions,” murmured Abby, still staring. “Are these really by the Alex we used to know?”
“Aren’t we staying at his house tonight?” whispered Phoebe. “Is he here?”
Lluvia looked around. “Don’t see him. But he definitely invited us.”
“Look at this little design where the signature usually goes,” whispered Abby with a thrill in her voice.
“I’ve seen that before... Have you?”
“I’ve seen it in prints and weaving by Alex... but, I can’t think of anywhere else.” “Well... I have. I want one of these prints.”
Taking his role as their host seriously, Henry had not deserted them. He stood nearby talking to a woman behind a long table covered with prints. They joined him there and studied the artwork and the prices. The prints were very cheap as art prices go, at ten to forty dollars each.
“Just five more minutes,” announced the woman in charge. “If you want a print, now is the time.” She was making sales to a small line of visitors.
Abby actually had money in her pocket and wanted a very small brown print with four shapes side by side. The first might have been a tall and jagged piece of rock; the second was a naked man with this hands and head in a position of prayer; the third was a tree with a bird on an upper branch overlooking the man; and the fourth was made of three thick wavy lines that reminded her of water. There was something so pleading and vulnerable about the man that Abby’s heart went out to him. The print seemed to depict a beautiful but scary world.
“Would you like to buy it?” asked the woman.
“Not now,” Abby said. “I don’t want to fold it.”
“I’ll put it in a little tube for you. Just ten dollars.”
“Abby,” called Phoebe, standing near the door. “Alex has gone home. Henry will take us.” She quickly pulled out ten dollars and tucked the tube into her backpack.
“So you know the artist?” asked the woman.
Abby was about to run out the door to catch up with her friends, but could not resist the question. “I haven’t seen him in many years. How’s he doing? I’m amazed I can afford something here.”
“He sells a lot though. I’m Olivia.”
“I’m Abby. Sorry, got to run, my friends are leaving.”
She had turned her back when Olivia shouted after her, “You’re the Abby? From Middletown?”
“Just here for tomorrow’s event! Got to run.” And she was out the door.
Henry, Phoebe, and Lluvia were waiting in the lobby. “You bought one of those? Let’s see it!”
“Just ten dollars. I couldn’t resist it.” She pulled the 8x6 inch print out of the tube and displayed it.
“Yeah, I’ve seen those around,” Henry told them. “A few are quite popular. Kind of different than what you usually see.”
“So what’s this guy like?” Phoebe asked.
Lluvia was hesitant, but she replied: “He’s nice, but kind of obsessed with his artwork. But it looks like he’s selling some now, and that will ease him up a bit. When Diego and I took him and his sister back to Rivergate last year he hardly opened his mouth. He just stared around and drew on a sketchpad. He was kind of a loner then, but has friends now. He’s part of this group of activists. Hey, I know where we are, Henry. I’ve got it from here.”
“Great to meet all of you,” Henry said. “You know... before you go, I just want to tell you how glad I am that Ricardo is including me in this project. I’ll be teaming up with Sara to visit Middletown next week. And I’ll see you all tomorrow. Keep your fingers crossed and hope for a good event.” He held up a V sign and headed back toward the college.