Sunday, September 5, 2010

Big little impact people

Sawdust. That's the first thing I noticed when I arrived at the Terra Viva compound. Its not a strong but a heavy odor. It sits on tip of your tongue and waits. The sawdust was donated, some would "scavenged" from dozens of workshops, garages, and fallen trees. Members brought the bags back by foot, of course. The whole way. Bikes were also acceptable.

Marching with smiles, they passed ahead of me without a word. Each one had a garbage bag bursting at the seams and very worn. Terra V does not recycle so much as they reuse until it is unusable. Every bag had been "hand air washed" at least three times.

It is rare when the people of T.V build anything. Everything is about maintenance and sustainability at a micro/macro level. Obviously, they needed to construct at some point. Almost 25 years ago, the TV compound seemed to rise from the Earth itself. Spin sent me here to witness their upcoming milestone. No co-op, bio dome, or even kibbutz has lasted this long and performed this well.

If anyone is Enviroconscious enough to turn sawdust into working wood and later back again, it would be the people of TV. Sawdust is very important here; its for shit. Yes America, TV members do shit and their shit smells. The digested result of the average American diet, consisting mostly of bleached bread, sad cheese, tortured meat, and the products of food products, can melt paint. If you eat better (and no one eats "well"), the smell starts to ease up. Keep going and it turns back around again. This time stinking of health. As I have learned.

"I first heard of Mexicans eating these guys"

She rubs her thumb, pointer, and index fingers around a squirming grub. She pops it in her mouth


"I thought they were crazy". She laughs. Gee-ah is one of the chief chefs at TV. She's the "Protein-Queen" at TV, a nickname she earned over a couple years. Stout, scrappy, and cheerful, she's like everybody's cool aunt.

I was surprised to hear that the people of TV eat meat. Bug meat but still meat. Different kinds too! "That's a popular misconception about us" People tend to think "'Vegetarian'  means 'Green' but that is not always the case Our methods raise the perfect amount of protein with the appropriate chemical/nutrient balance for our specific diets in a way that is less ecotaxing than growing mass amounts of tofu and nuts" She had the charts to illustrate this. They were were constructed from a "edible sauce ink" made from the ground wings of pregnant "naturally deceased" crickets and liquid hydroponic waste water. She tells me it took a while to make the chart.

"Raising bugs is easy. Think how hard most people work to kill them! Our way is better"

Hydroponics provide for most of the rest. I tour the "Farms". For people who strive to be natural, it is awfully artificial. Nature is never this organized. Rows and rows of perfectly portioned dirt. Water, which they needlessly ration amongst themselves, is administered by eye drop. Hand sewn "grass canvases" are moved and arranged in intricate patterns blocking the sun for certain species at specific times. TV farmers have to memorize the patterns perfectly as there is little paper and almost no computers (or screens of any kind) at all. Monk like, they quietly dart amongst the rows. This part of the TV compound uses the most electricity. More than Anderson's room. It uses full (UV) lights and perfect, "staggered/segregated" temperature control.

Calories are just another resource from the Earth to be preserved. There are no elevators here which may seem counterproductive. Everybody walks everywhere on floors of "already murdered wood". It is usually flat but they often form kitten gentle sloping ramps that require the slightest amount of exertion to ascend. "The goal is to minimize the amount of calories burned" says Harold Ramos, the chief nutritionist and one of the few people who tells Gee-Ah what to do.

"We all strive for leanness. Excess muscle or fat requires calories to sustain. We individualize every meal for our members, within our standards, based off their age, body types, and molecular/metabolic needs". You would hardly know who is who here. Skin tones aside, everyone seems to blend into a uniformed, fit, smiling, trim, androgynous look.  Harold's beard gives him away though. He's due for his shaving tomorrow. Once a month, they remove your hair. All of it.

Showers, shits, and shaves are all water free. I tour the "cleansing chamber" as the word "shower" was only there for alteration. It is a small room, with a clear glass chamber inside. It is appropriate for only one person. Though, I hear rumors of the occasional tryst. I can't imagine fooling around while it is on. That would hurt. This is another room that uses power, though it is generated a ways away. From people powered treadmill, I am told.

It is a wind bath; blasts of air that blow any filth from your body. It is harsh. Everyone tells me you get used to it but that seems impossible. I strip down and try it. Thirty seconds later I am done. I feel not dirty, not clean and certainly not warm or comfortable. But not dirty. That's for certain. These chambers will clean your clothes too. I place my clothes inside.

I push the 2nd button and it fills with small black beads. The chamber slams shut and begins to spin. You might have heard of this kind of technology before. I stand naked and watch them swirl around my khakis, boxers, socks, and button down. Five minutes later, it stops and they all fall to the bottom. The beads sink through a fine sieve on the floor. The chamber opens. My clothes are cold, clean, and dry with a fresh hole in my breast pocket.

There is a knock on the door. I wonder if there was a camera somewhere waiting for me to get dressed. Later, I find out the door was time locked. Five for my body and ten for my clothes. Every minute counts in the TV compound. I step out. Members are lined up and smiling. I almost feel a sort of mass jealousy; wishing they could experience fresh again whatever it is that waits for me. It is more than a little creepy.

Now that I'm clean, it is time to meet the boss. Many helpful hands lead the way. The Terra Vivia media presence has been almost entirely online. Carefully managed by Anderson.. I am one of the first to come here, with my piddly digital camera. I heard he had a telephone and some internet connection but we mostly corresponded through mail.  Walked and biked in by courier, another cheerful eco-warrior with boundless energy, despite its actual micro caloric management.

Anderson Bereoth founded Terra Viva. He had a lot of help, but it was his vision and mostly his money. A former Timberland executive, he became disillusioned with what he called "consumer environmentalism". He retired and began searching for liked minded engineers, farmers, and financiers. Young people too, no movement has legs without a few fresh faces. These weren't just warriors for the cause; they would become family and eventually, a legacy. He shows me around his office. It is small, so he mostly uses his hands. There is a desk, an outlet, a chair, and what looks like a low end 2004 computer. Sure enough, I see his ethernet cord

"I was inspired by the bio-domes", though we both know our history well enough to smirk at this statement. "Only, I wanted them to work". Anderson is a stoic man with thin, birdy features. His sense of humor dry and subtle. He feels the problem was too few participants and the sealed environment. "Does such a thing exist in nature? We will close our doors when our task is done".

Done? What does "done" mean to the world's most cuddly eco-cult? Are they going PETA? EDL? Will there be flying paint cans and non negligence oil refinery explosions? Will "chicken" genetic abominations be set feebly free on our streets, too obesely engineered to even crawl?

"We don't want to change the world. We....can't. We're just big on little impact"

Little impact?

"Everything living thing has some sort of impact on the Earth. There is no way not to use something in a lifetime. Even what you call 'sustainable' renewal policies. We're just trying to have the maximum number of people take the smallest least from our dying world"

Anderson is a big idea man. Thought and goals seem to be all he is. Less of three dimensional, solid being and more of a walking, talking, extension of the will. His own or the planets, sometimes I wonder.

TV is not all sacrifice and temperance.  There is fun to be had! No television or computers. No digital music or video games either. It is natural, just like everything else.

"We're all big on live entertainment" In lounges or outside are drum circles and jam sessions. Anderson, a self described "theater geek" makes exceptions for dramas, musical, and comedies, The stage is the only common area that needs juice. "Theater, in its nature, requires a little excess. I suppose you could call it our indulgence". The lights, drops, and costumes are all professional quality. In a world of few comforts, that which remain are treasured all the more.

Even getting some shut eye is eco-strange. There are no assigned rooms. That would "encourage possessiveness". Anderson has a cot in his office, the only private place, but he usually sleeps with everyone else. Not in a Daivd Koresh way but in a communal one. Most TV members sleep in one of 15 small rooms, or the massive "Dirt Dorm". All the rooms are pitch black and deathly still. The only outside walls are lined with sound poof foam. You cannot even hear the breathing. There is no floor in the "Dirt Dorm", just soft inviting loam. You almost want to sink in it.

"We're officially an atheist organization. It is not a requirement and some practice a few faiths here and there but the Earth comes first. No matter what you believe"

"It's all that matters"

He turns his back to and hunches forward. He leads me to the "Dirt Dorm".

I can't see the beds but they are arranged in a way so that if you keep walking straight, you will never  bump into one. People rest on their own schedule, so it is almost never more than half full. Crawling into an occupied bed is so infrequent, it is a common joke. Couples can have some privacy in the small rooms or, as is the popular thing to do, in the surrounding woods.

So how big is their impact anyways? Not little enough it seems.

"We use so much more than we'd like" His voice is hushed as if he does not want his flock to hear his doubt. I can see the passion drain from his face as he stand outside the dorm's massive iron doors. "We keep cutting the fat and finding new ways to be efficient but its not enough. It never will be". He still manages to smile at the beaming members passing by, thankful to see their leader amongst them.

He shows me charts and projections, measuring things like carbon use in a variety of different oil markets, general energy utilization, forest depletion, plastic consumption, and projected health cost coverage for the next 4 decades of every member (including himself). He even has possible "off spring predictions" gauging possible child producing match ups between viable members and what health problems their kids would likely have.

"I've done the cold math myself. All levels of growth or even at slow loss, no matter what we do, it is going to be too much. These people are so dedicated. They've given up so much, I cannot ask for more. It is all or nothing for us". He falls silent, I can feel the weight of years of work crumbling into disappointment. The air is heavy.

Time passes. It is time for me to leave. Anderson shakes my hand. We chat a little bit on my way out and I swear I can see him smile. Tomorrow is another day. The 25th anniversary in fact. I walk my multi mile trip to my car and arrive at my hotel quickly. A task by bike or foot any one of these people would commit to in a minute, and would take them all day.
I return the next day to silence. No fanfare. No cheer. No drums, wind instruments, or acoustic guitars. The doors are wide open, carelessly ajar even. There is a slight chemical taste to the air. It seems so contrary to what they are all about. I run in. The quiet has escaped the "Dirt Dorm" and is now everywhere. I see no one.

I take the ramps to Anderson's office. I hear the electric fuzz of a monitor. There is a big "Play" arrow  on the screen. My hands tremble as I move the mouse to it.

The screen flickers. It is an old bulky monitor. Very old. I fear it will spit mercury at me.


The VLC file plays. It begins black with sound only.


I see Anderson's face. He's solid now, cracks and lines everywhere. I see a brow that supported heavy thoughts and big decisions.

"It does not seem like a lot but at our best efficiency, with a minimally diverse, renewable population, we are 2 grams over. And it will only get worse. We can't let that happen"

The image zooms out. It is the "Dirt Dorm" all lit up. It looks like everyone is there. They are smiling, holding hands. Everyone looks so relived. The way their eyes look, you'd swear there was no way they could be wrong.

                                                        We're going home!

The dorm begins to fill with gas. It looks thick and yellow. Alien to a place such as this. They continue to smile. It cuts out right when you hear the coughing start. The video ends and closes itself. The whole screen goes black save for a message.

"Step away from the computer"

I do without thinking. I witness the world's smallest explosion. It is subdued, small, and efficient just like everything else here.

Like a fool, I run to the dorm. It is sealed with multiple scary stinks wafting from the iron doors.

I hurry back to my car. Every mile seeps into my being. I call the cops once I have a signal. I start driving home. I wonder how quickly I will undo the life's work of these people along the way. Every drop of gas feels like a step on their mass grave.

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