- The Art + Environment Conference is a triennal art event in Reno, Nevada, celebrating land art. I was commissioned to write this work of “land art fiction” for the Nevada Museum of Art three years ago. It appeared in the museum’s book “Late Harvest.”
*I’m currently at the conference in Reno again, so I thought I would post it on Medium.
by Bruce Sterling
When Fernandez awoke within his steel coffin, he knew that his trouble was of an epic, planetary scale. Apocalyptic trouble: The-End-Of-The-World-As-We-Know-It.
Fernandez breathed warm steam until his heart stopped skipping beats. A faint chemical glow lit the museum chamber. He rose from his crypt. His naked arms, legs, even his ears and eyeballs stung with pins and needles.
His go-bag of survival-gear was still icy from the liquid nitrogen. The bulletproof ballistic nylon of the bag was flaking away. His cargo pants and trail shirt had the stiff feel of antique newspapers. His bootlaces shed tiny clouds of dust.
Fernandez munched on the frozen nugget of a granola bar as he climbed the museum’s evacuation stairs. The last time he’d seen these stairs, they’d been a magnificent underground balustrade, every step sliced laser-clean through hard Nevada bedrock. In the faint light of his glowstick, the naked rock had a thick rime of caked and crunchy dust.
The exit of the Museum was buried deep under a vast heap of urban garbage, it being the wise opinion of the Museum trustees that no one would ever search for land-art under a dump. In this sly way, the Museum’s precious cultural holdings would remain safe from the inevitable hordes of starving marauders, a demographic considered incumbent on the abject collapse of a world civilization.
The world had ended from the Greenhouse Effect. Everyone had seen that coming — some had lied about it — but then an Apocalypse really came, and that was just how things were.
Some had taken foresightful action to preserve humanity’s heritage. After remaining deep-frozen in their underground Ark for a couple of Dark Age centuries, the Trustees and their Corporate Sponsors would be back. They would jump-start civilization, in a grand scheme quite like the plot of an Isaac Asimov novel.
Fernandez opened the counterweighted stone lid at the end of the exit stairs. Gusts of wind tore his hair. His eyes shrank in the daylight.
The Museum’s blastproof, underground exit tunnel had become a sturdy turret in midair. Fernandez was overlooking a sylvan, bucolic, future Nevada — flowery arroyos with thick patches of grass under scurrying clouds. The arroyo’s sump held a small freshwater pond, with cat-tailed reeds of an odd purplish hue. No roads, no chain-link, no contrails in the sky… nothing but a big beaten cow-path across the arroyo, and one distant pencil of campfire smoke.
Fernandez was unsurprised that the world after the End of the World looked like this: so peaceful. He himself was the only part of the world that looked or felt post-Apocalyptic. His ears rang, and his knees and ankles were buckling like cheap tin hinges, but he had a rifle, a knife, clothing, a water-filter canteen, packs of food, matches, and strong binoculars.
He set out for the rising smoke of the campfire.
Up at the fireside, perched on a stony crag with a fine view of the landscape, a battered old man was dozing. He lay on his side on a hand-woven straw mat, wearing a ragged loincloth, a cape of rabbit skins, and some hand-stitched moccasins. As Fernandez approached, he sat up.
“Charlie,” he said, “it’s me. I set your timer, and I thawed you out. I’m glad you made it here. Welcome to the distant future.”
Fernandez remembered the Museum’s Curator as a plump, jolly, erudite guy with excellent taste in landscape photography. This bony, eldritch, near-naked savage was obviously still the Curator, despite his freezer-burned skin and gaunt, bony limbs. The Curator still had his carefully chosen art-critic’s vocabulary, and that abstracted, comprehensive look in his eyes.
“You must have many questions to ask me,” said the Curator, moving off his mat hospitably.
Fernandez leaned his rifle against a chunk of granite, and sat. “I suppose I should ask something,” he said. “But I just don’t know what to say.”
The Curator prodded his campfire. He produced a fire-blackened shish-kebab stick with the skinned and skewered carcass of a small monkey. He propped the stick between two rocks, then took a swig of water from an ancient plastic canteen.
Fernandez struggled to comprehend the situation. He’d known that the world was ending in a catastrophe, and that would escape that ruin, and persist, deep in the Nevada desert, rather like a Dead Sea Scroll in a jar. He’d also known, vaguely, that coming back to life would be an emotional challenge.
But now that this abstract future had really taken place. He was sitting by a campfire listening to the crickets chirp, he was struggling with the very nature of being alive.
He could feel that his long fossilization had taken some metabolic toll on him. Obscure internal organs were bloating, tingling and backfiring, like components of a car up on blocks far too long. A chemical brittleness haunted the marrow of his bones. He had become a museum relic.
The Curator quietly turned the meat on the spit. He seemed used to long silences.
Fernandez examined his well-chosen survival gear. It was all chipping, flaking and crumbling. “Why does my compass point south?”
“Well, that was the reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field,” said the Curator, adjusting the roasting flesh of his unclassifiable monkey, squirrel, jerboa or marmot. “We had a good seminar on that subject once. Us being a ‘Museum of Ideas,’ and all that.”
“That must have been a major disaster,” said Fernandez. “No magnetism up in the sky? That means big mutation rates from cosmic radiation.”
“Oh yes, exactly, I’m glad you remember the show. It’s surprising how many cosmic disasters occur,” said the Curator. “Besides the disaster we called ‘civilization,’ I mean. There hasn’t been a civilization here in Nevada for two million years.”
“You mean two hundred years, don’t you, sir?” said Fernandez.
“That’s not how the story turned out,” said the Curator, cracking a flea from his armpit. “After two hundred years, I thawed out right on time, but Nevada was a hell on Earth. Nothing but black, howling winds. The Simoom, the Harmattan, the Haboob, the Khamsin, Charlie. The winds of planetary apocalypse.”
“You should have thawed me out to help you then, sir.”
“You’re a good security man, Charlie, but you can’t breathe poison. It took time to destroy this planet, but time was all it took.”
Fernandez rubbed his panging stomach and belched up a primeval smell. “You want a granola bar sir? I’ve got plenty in my go-bag here.”
The Curator mumbled happily over the peeled and naked snack bar. “My teeth are killing me,” he said. “Nerve damage from the ice, you see. I’ve had to thaw myself out nineteen times during these geologic eons of the Anthropocene. All those times, in and out of my vitrine. That repeated handling has damaged me as a specimen. I’ve had to thaw you out as my backup man. I’m not fit for public display any more.”
“What happened to all your clothes?” said Fernandez.
“It’s my nature to live off the land,” the Curator shrugged, hitching his loincloth. “I’m forced to admit that our museum’s grand strategy has not reached its projected fulfillment plan! Here in two million AD, the time has come for me to retire my curatorship and go into private life.”
Fernandez scratched his unshaven chin. The freeze-dried stubble there broke off like dust. “Why don’t we thaw out the trustees, the corporate backers, and all the staff, and have a discussion?”
“I thought of that, too, but why?” said the Curator. “They’re a civilized elite in their nuclear storage-room down there. They’re not like us rugged, can-do, outdoor, land-art experts! My plan was to thaw them out once civilization returns, so that they could resume their customary, laudable cultural activities. I can’t expose them to this! Nevada doesn’t have a single casino or shopping-mall.”
A coarse shrieking came from overhead. Fernandez grabbed for his rifle. A flock of a dozen enormous bats sculled by, leathery, shrieking monsters in broad daylight. They settled into the pond and began to bathe themselves, cackling and jabbering.
“They’re harmless,” said the Curator. “Also, that ammo you have is two million years old. So forget the gun, it’s useless.”
Fernandez found that his glass binoculars still worked properly. The jostling bats much resembled flying monkeys from the Judy Garland “Wizard of Oz,” but without the technicolor costumes. They had big, lambent, movie-star eyes, and they were by far the clumsiest flying animals he’d ever seen. They flew like small kids jumping off a roof with cardboard wings.
“Not one bird left alive on Earth,” sighed the Curator. “The birds outlived that dinosaur mass-extinction, because they were lucky. But the Anthropocene Disaster finally did ’em in. I went bird-watching, Charlie, I searched for birds for hundred of kilometers… I get around by bicycle mostly — because I can keep it in repair… But everything that flies in the skies these days is human.”
“Bats are mammalian, you mean.”
“No, Charlie, those beasts are human. This is the Anthropocene. So all the wildlife is human. Some insects, fish, and mollusks also survived, and a pretty good variety of plant-life, but all the major livestock is directly descended from Homo sapiens.”
The Curator scratched at a rock with a charcoaled bit of tinder. “The way I figure it, somebody else survived the Apocalypse, besides us. Maybe some Long Now people, or Mormons, or somebody’s national government, in a bomb shelter. Mankind survived the mass extinction. But after that, well, evolution did what it always does. Humanity gave up on the intelligence debacle, that didn’t work out. Humanity found new relations to the landscape.”
The bats flew off, cackling and gossipping. A trio of fat, tusked, root-grubbing things came to the waterhole. They grunted at length, and smeared mud on one another in a companionable fashion, with their rudimentary fingers.
“Wait till you see the herds of human bison,” said the Curator, tending his fire. “North America’s gigantic, native ruminants. They pour down over right across that flat there, and through the ford, in a cloud of yellow dust. Millions of them. Grazers big as Volkswagens, and trailed by human wolves and human buzzards. A magnificent spectacle.”
Fernandez said nothing.
“They talk to each other, you know,” said the Curator. “The vast herds of bison, I mean. You can hear them shouting at each other from way over the horizon. All our descendants talk. They lost their brains, but they never lost the gift of speech. We don’t have to think, but we always have something to say.”
Fernandez tugged at his loose bootlace. It snapped within his fingers.
“Once I thought that this epoch of our world was an utter nightmare,” said the Curator, peaceably rotating his skewered monkey over the low blue flames. “As if this were some punishment for mankind, for our failed stewardship of the Earth… But, well, the Anthropocene is still a young era. It takes ten million years to fully restore species diversity after a Great Extinction. Mother Nature works with whatever she’s got! It’s a credit to the elasticity of our germ plasm that the human species has radiated so successfully. We’re in the seas, the skies, the plains, the mountains, forests, jungles. We’re everywhere.”
“You’re not afraid of them?” said Fernandez. “They’re monsters.”
“They’re all afraid of my fire,” shrugged the Curator. “I’m the only one of them who still has the knack for fire. You see, Charlie, when you’ve persisted for two million years — like I have — you get used to a long view. I’m a living fossil — I know that — but truly, I wish that I could see twenty million years. The relationship of humankind to the landscape is just getting interesting now. In twenty million years, we’ll have achieved every possible physical relationship in every ecological niche! We’ll be anteaters, porcupines, otters. Everything that we once killed and stuffed, we’ll replace with our own living flesh.”
“What do you want me to do, sir?” said Fernandez at last.
“Well, you’re the museum guard,” said the Curator. “So I thought, well, you should guard the museum. As for me, I’m going out to California. I want to spot some whales.”
“Why do I guard the museum?”
“Something will turn up! Where there’s life, their’s hope. We’re fossil life now, but there must be fossil hope of some kind! We shouldn’t make snap judgments.”
“But what am I doing it for?” said Fernandez. “Where are the guests, where are the attendees? Where’s the museum’s community? A museum exists for the people, it’s not just dead things stuffed in a cabinet.”
“I used to think that myself,” said the Curator, sniffing at his lunch. “But in Nevada — in this long relation between us and the land we love — we’re just not the center of that story.”