by Craig Chalquist
To the reader:
This little utopian fable kind of wrote itself. What would be your version of a delightful future to live in? If we put all of ours together…
Stories can be so healing; art is so healing; and I think that when you have a story that shows a picture of a utopian future…having a vision of it can help you actualize it.
− Sonequa Martin-Green
Nothing is harder, yet nothing is more necessary, than to speak of certain things whose existence is neither demonstrable nor probable. The very fact that the serious and conscientious treat them as existing things brings them a step closer to existence and to the possibility of being born.
− Hermann Hesse
It was Christmas Eve again, and I was alone and depressed.
A glance out the window revealed clouds but no rain. Where were the December showers to clean the air and streets?
The news that day had been a study in how badly a world could go wrong. Rising oceans, dying species, drying croplands, governments split by white supremacy religiously justified; hate crimes every day, wars of conquest every week; super-wealthy elites hiding in gated enclaves, clinging to the illusion of security while those of us with jobs and homes to live in labored on, afraid of joining the homeless and unable to retire… The dismal list went on and on. I pulled down the blind.
Turning off the news did no good. In two days I would be back at work in a job I hated but could not leave. I thought of the last time I had driven to the coast in my pickup truck to spend the night sleeping beneath the stars. Narrowly avoiding arrest for vagrancy. Almost no free space anymore not owned by someone with more resources than I would ever have. And what would happen to me when old age set in?
How had things come to this?
I decided to turn in early just to get the “holidays” over with.
When I turned on the outside lights, I saw a scrap of paper sitting on my doorstep, perhaps blown there by a careless breeze. It looked like a little message of the kind you find in a fortune cookie once you break it open.
The paper contained a single statement in blue letters:
A grand and wondrous possibility awaits up ahead.
I snorted. If only!
Too low even to eat dinner. I put out the light and rolled into bed, hoping I would not need to take anything to get to sleep. I dropped off almost immediately.
To sleep, perchance to dream…
I find myself standing in grass at the foot of a hill next to a longhouse of the kind my ancestors used to live in for the winter. A group of people of various ages, sexes, and ethnicities stand near me, smiling.
The air is cool and fresh. The sun shines in a blue sky. This is a dream, I realize.
Someone near me gestures, and we all begin walking up the hill. It is quiet. Odd, the absence of the familiar noises of traffic, trucks, or jets. The only sounds I hear as we climb are natural: birds chirping and flapping, the breeze murmuring in my ear…
The trail through the grass presents other welcome absences: no burger wrappers, no plastic cups or straws, no trash of any kind to obscure the healthy darkness of the soil underfoot. The luxurious green grass is more verdant than any I can recall. The cry of a circling hawk…
When we reach the summit of the hill, another gesture invites me to sit down with them as the group spreads out in a line at the crest. We gaze down into a valley.
The hillside on which we sit slopes downward to a floor, where a clear stream weaves between stately tree trunks as it runs out of view. The shining waters look like liquid crystal sparked to life. Even from here I can see plump glowing fish flash by downstream like lanterns bobbing in a creek.
The forest in the valley is a study in variety of size, shape, and color, with bright green branches alternating with those holding leaves of yellow, orange, tan, and red. The breeze inspires the tops of trees to bow. Mature trees tower with saplings at their feet. In the shadows and in clearings, curious deer, wild horses, and other kinds of wildlife move in and out of bands of light as geese arrow overhead, calling to each other across the pellucid sky. The air is full of birds.
In the distance, behind the valley, moist clouds build into a storm. Purple streaks of lightning flash and rumble as the rains descend, watering the forest as the clouds advance. Treetops glisten, drinking the falling water.
Turning my head to look at the slope at whose top we perch, enjoying the view, I notice signs of human habitation: footpaths, fertile fields, a road here and there curving on contour. Self-powered bungalows of various shapes and colors dot the hillside like hobbit homes. Somehow I know that whether here or in cities elsewhere, the buildings, creatively printed as much for beauty as for function, are clean and maintain themselves. I imagine artistically glowing sidewalks looping through gigantic parks.
My attention returns to the valley. Never have I beheld such an incomparable place, not in fantasy, fact, or dream…until now.
My despair has slipped away, replaced by a surprising mood of relieved enjoyment starting to shade over into joy. That such a place could exist, even in a dream…
The words come not to my ears but go directly into my brain, sent by the people sitting next to me as they look over at me:
“Behold your future.” Somehow, I know they mean: not my future, but the future of us all.
“I didn’t realize the future was already set,” I reply mentally, knowing they can hear me think.
“One potential future, then. A glimpse of what is possible.”
“At first glance, it looks glorious. But how can this be?”
The breeze flowing out of the valley ruffles hair and garments and grasses. We sit together in silence.
“Have you ever fantasized something that came true? Probably everyone has, but so easy to dismiss as coincidence. It isn’t.
“The seeds of many possible futures lay in the depths of consciousness—your depths and everyone else’s–waiting for the right time to sprout. They germinate for decades, even centuries, moving closer to or farther from realization depending on the choices being made.
“Some of these futures should never sprout. Worldwide drought and devastation, ceaseless wars over dwindling resources: these are paths you should not take. But other paths beckon.
“Our path is that of a lovingly inhabited planet where every species reaches fulfillment and Earth becomes fully conscious of herself through all, human and non-human alike. All this and more”—one of our party on the hill gestures toward creek, forest, birds, clouds, bungalows and hamlets and, beyond them, the rest of the flourishing world—“is Terrania, the mythos of a lovingly inhabited world.”
It is too beautiful to let in. Because if I do, then what? “Everything but the cigars,” I tell myself cynically. And yet the scene before me is melting my defenses…
“Humans have fantasized the future you now see for millennia. Many are the names it has gone by: Faerie, Eden, Alam al-Mithal, Isles of the Blessed, Aztlán, Camelot, Cockaigne, Paititi, Thule, Mount Meru, New Jerusalem. More recently, Shangri-La, Amber, Rivendell, Roke, Wakanda, 24th Century Earth…”
“Discontented people long for an Elsewhere,” I think.
“This is not just a human dream. You share it with the intelligence of Earth, who sees herself reflected in the consciousness of every experiment in life which she devises.”
I imagine a vast being, not conscious as humans are, but in her own way. I imagine four billion years of experimentation—groping, really–involving complex chemicals separating and joining deep in the oceans, changing climates and shorelines, freezes, warmings, soils, fungi connecting entire continents, funneling nutrients and maintaining landscapes, Moon backing away from it all as tides grow ever tamer. My mind cannot encompass the effloresces of life, the upwellings of algae, plants, insects, animals, coming into being and passing away, evolving with each long-term change in their locale. Most of it long before we got here.
And then one day a column of fire from deep beneath Ethiopia breaking open the Rift Valley and, millions of years later, as continents reshuffle as they drift over pools of magma, the first two-leggeds appearing near seas, by rivers, in savannas dotted with trees….
A breeze brings a roll of thunder and the smell of rain. My mind returns to the present.
“But who maintains all this? Where in this pretty picture are the working poor, the weary landscapers and factory slaves, the bankrupt farmers, the coughing miners who won’t see old age, the broken soldiers returning from war?”
“There are no poor anymore. No slaves, no sick laborers, no down-and-outs or pushed-to-one-sides. Here, everyone has worth and respect.”
No poor. After thousands of years of oppression trickling down from elites unwilling to give up their power and control?
“Poverty doesn’t arise from lack of resources, but from groups of rulers controlling what others need to live. Our societies do not permit this evil. We don’t let anyone grow up so fearful and paranoid that they would want to dominate others.
“When we learned how to dream together and found the courage to enact our dreams, hopelessness and cynicism disappeared, and a lot of evils vanished with them: poverty, inequality, oppression, warfare…
“Everyone has delicious food, clean water, basic education, quality healthcare, efficient transportation, and a good home. No one need stay in an unsatisfying job, and nobody is considered better or more worthwhile than anybody else. Address the imbalances, you see, and the symptom disappears.”
I thought then of Dostoevsky’s claim that in orderly situations, some people would be contrary just to be contrary.
“No strife or dissent of any kind?”
“Of course there is. But we manage them humanely. For example, rebels, misfits, and dissidents provide valuable feedback to the system, which is why we encourage their creativity. They remind us that tending the balance—balance, not opposition—between individual and group rights requires constant vigilance.”
“Does private property still exist?”
“Sure. With unlimited clean energy available, you can print up whatever you want so long as you don’t use it against anyone else.”
“A peaceful future of plenty might strike some as, well, rather boring. What room do you make for warriors, heroes, and adventurers?”
“There is plenty for them to do even on a peaceful world. The vicissitudes of life and fortune require the brave in any time, including ours. Although we left conquering behind long ago, we shall never tire of exploring. –And by the way, you should see our games. Yours are fairly tame by comparison.
“On our world, we live where it delights us to live: park, city, suburb, wilderness, whatever corresponds to the dreams we wish to sculpt into being and inhabit. Instead of being lived by someone else’s dreams, we live our own.”
“Wouldn’t some become addicted to a fantasy and stay inside it, cut off from everything else?”
“That only happens when fantasy and creative activity—’work’ in your terminology—remain separate and split from each other. On our interconnected planet, everyone’s dream sculpting eventually produces something useful, somewhere, to someone: a bit of spontaneous play resulting in a rearranged work space, a building, an invention, a rich conversation, an art form, a new game, music, a blueprint for someone else’s dreams…”
“How could dreaming, visioning, and storying lead to such lasting and foundational change, though? Stories aren’t enough.”
“Stories and visions mobilize invention and action. A story called Uncle Tom’s Cabin supported the outlawing of American slavery. Black Beauty improved the daily conditions of taxi drivers in London. The continuity of entire religions and the societies organized around them has depended on sacred stories. A book of fairy tales called the Kalevala helped solidify the independence of Finland. Think of those three sacred words: ‘We the People…’”
My eye considers the loveliness around me: the pristine waters, the bright green branches, the clear sky above…
“In my time, entire regions are devastated by drought, toxic runoff, clear-cutting, mountaintop removal. How is all that now?”
“Healed. As we all came to realize long ago, only the foolish destroy their own home, and Earth is home to all of us. There can be no jobs or profits on a dead planet. Managed by those who work in them, our industries waste nothing. In fact, they enhance their surroundings ecologically, financially, and culturally. Industries compete for annual local, regional, and planetary beneficence awards.
”Additionally, although we encourage (and fund) scientific inquiry, we have placed safeguards between it and its implementation. Unregulated science nearly destroyed Earth. To go forward, project designers must fully answer questions such as: Who benefits? Who might be harmed? What could be the consequences?”
“How do you pick your leaders?”
“Our ‘leaders’ are facilitators of collaboration. Everybody participates in governance. Nobody rules; and under no circumstances do we ever allow the deceitful, the ambitious, or the selfish into positions of public responsibility, for there is nothing more dangerous than emotionally immature egotists exerting mass appeal. Councils of elders grill potential spokespeople, guides, and role models first to verify their practical wisdom, emotional intelligence, psychological maturity, ability at mentoring their successors, and facility at hosting difficult conversations between opposing constituencies.”
“What about tolerance of one another?”
“Having no standard to force lifestyles to conform to—not for color, age, sex or gender, religion, ways of loving each other, what have you—freed us to move beyond the limited goal of ‘tolerance’ to delight in our differences. Here, everyone has value, and a choice of where to live, where to ‘work,’ whom to associate with, what to imagine. Here, it’s not who you know or what you own or what your parents owned, but who you are and what you do. Here, everyone creates their own life.”
My eyes rest again on the variegated colors below. Each different, and all in accord.
“How could all this occur, though? It seems impossibly miraculous. There’s a reason it’s called ‘utopia,’ meaning ‘nowhere.’”
“You’d be surprised what people can do when they grow up emotionally. What seem to you now like intractable worldwide problems are not just difficulties to be fixed here and there, but rites of passage: collective immaturities to be permanently outgrown. And we have outgrown them. We are not perfect, we still fight with each other now and then, greed and mental illness still exist, and serious problems do arise. But as a species, one living consciously and thoughtfully among many, we’ve survived our adolescence and finally come of age.”
“To psychological adults belong adult religions free of exceptionalism and literalism and open to creative play. For many of us, appreciating and learning about an ensouled world filled with animate forces suffices as a spiritual path. It is the oldest continual spiritual tradition, and a pleasure to celebrate with others.”
I sigh deeply, all the way down to my heels. I recall corrupt clergy and scheming bosses; raped friends and a murdered brother-in-law. I feel my teenaged fist crash into the face of a bully. Later, the funeral of a colleague who committed suicide after being laid off. Televised images of fleets of warships alternate in my memory with estimated body counts nobody is supposed to talk about. Police pressing the faces of demonstrators into the pavement—or the faces of black people for the “crime” of just being there.
“All this seems so unreachably distant from the lives we actually lead today.”
On my left, one of the nearby members of the group finally turns to face me:
“That’s how it always seems before the great transitions of history. Afterwards, people wonder how they put up with so much unhappiness and injustice for so long.
“Humanity has overcome an Ice Age, volcanic winter, falling civilizations, smallpox, several plagues, world wars, and the Divine Right of Kings. You have gone to the Moon and studied the secrets of the cosmos. You have sent your voices to the stars. Is it reasonable to assume you can’t figure out how to govern yourselves and live together in peace and prosperity? And you must, because consider the alternative: end of the Homo sapiens experiment, with your species name become a tragic irony.
“The bones and organs of Terrania live among you even now as a million local projects in how to live together intelligently, securely, and enjoyably. Resilient indigenous societies—the elders of the human species—have been doing this for millennia. You have such a wealth of knowledge to draw upon: sacred stories and traditions from every time and place; local examples of wise governance; the practice of council and participatory democracy; restorative justice and fairness; diplomacy and conflict resolution; methods for growing food and building things as nature does it; societies for looking after the young and the aged; initiatory rituals for the daring; art and culture in the very streets. Like the organismic wisdom of the unconscious psyche, the land itself speaks in your dreams if you know how to listen. What other resources do you need?
“Four beliefs block you, all instilled in you by the kinds of short-sighted power-holders who want things to remain as they are.
“The first belief is that you cannot get together to achieve a mature society.
“The second belief is that visioning and dreaming are impractical.
“The third belief is that ordinary people such as you have no power.
“The fourth belief is that someone powerful who is not you must solve the world’s problems for you.
“The four truths are the opposite: you can achieve a mature society together, visioning and dreaming are practical, you have power when you plan and move together, and you can solve the world’s major problems by outgrowing them.
“Imagine a world without locked doors. Without traffic jams, unjust laws, lying politicians, or crooked banks and bankers. Where no one worries about being persecuted or humiliated by machinery too big and too loud to control.
“Imagine waking up in the morning without worrying about having enough money for food, water, or bills. A day of delight stretches ahead of you. What will you do with it? Play a game with your family? Catch up with a friend? Start a vacation? Cook up a feast? Make love to your partner? All of these? Take a course on something you’ve been wanting to learn how to do? Sail on a river? Fly over a canyon? Converse with that old farmer down the road who knows everything about the land and its past?
“Imagine being able to speak your mind openly and plainly without fear of ostracism, going to jail, losing your job, being kicked out of your home, or jeopardizing your healthcare. Imagine a world in which no one will ever threaten you or anyone you love; in which no one would even want to.
“Imagine the blessed silence of no more arguments about pollution, habitat destruction, ocean islands of plastic, suffering animals, or global warming, because all those blights were symptoms of immaturity, symptoms no longer needed. Imagine Earth as a freely breathing globe in space, with beautiful blue skies free of smoke and smog, creeks and rivers shining with health, towering trees and green growing things in abundance, rains to water it all, happy critters everywhere. Imagine clean cities that stand as living, looping, soaring works of art, and as beautiful living and evolving monuments to what you can achieve.
“Imagine having the time, space, and chance to pursue your desires and live your dreams, and for encouraging others to do the same. Imagine knowing that, whatever happens, your community will look after you. Imagine never having to be lonely, and yet being able to secure your solitude and privacy when you want them.
“And imagine belonging securely to a civilization finally come of age, grown from the ground up to reach into the heavens; a civilization in which everyone matters, justice is the norm, and freedom no longer must be fought for. Where each of us lives as we enjoy. Where children grow up to be who they really wish to be.”
The creek below is too far for me to hear, but my inner ear picks up the gurgling, cascading rush of waters down to the sunlit sea. Many drops; one ocean. A tear rolls down my face.
“The potential to grow Terrania is in you, in all of you together. First, you need to learn to vision together. All of you know what you are against. But where are the inspiring, heart-expanding, dream-creating visions of what you are for? Of how you want to live with yourselves, each other, your homeworld, and the cosmos? How can you possibly change things for the better without mobilizing inspiration?”
I sigh deeply, there among the others (who are they?), as the beauty and freshness of the place creeps soothingly into my flesh. Sweet air fills my lungs as a bird caws overhead. A growl of distant thunder. Pulses of light in the creek as bright fish dart down it. I feel a strong desire to swim in it.
It occurs to me that I can sit here as long as I want, enjoying this glimpse at something more than the daily disasters we endure in my time. But I feel a new urgency upon me now: to go back, to work toward this place—play toward this place—and the bright prospects it heralds.
Not to offer any plan; that would have to come from common creative effort. Instead, to share this glimpse, to encourage that effort of all of us together, in service not to Utopia, but to Heretopia, to Terrania, a vital and secure world of fully human beings dwelling amicably with their fellow creatures on the healing Earth.
“Thank you,” I tell my hosts, “for lighting up such a dark time by giving me this view of a destiny worth dreaming about and working for.”
A tree seems to wave its glistening branches as I stand to give a last long glance at that fantastically beautiful valley.
—I woke on Christmas Day to the sound of falling rain. The long drought had broken.
Rising, I picked up a blue pen and wrote myself a note to tack above my desk, there to remind me, when despair and disempowerment came haunting once again, that
A grand and wondrous possibility awaits up ahead.