Winds of Change is the third novel in the Dandelion Trilogy by Rivera Sun. It’s a wild tale of resistance and resilience, people-powered democracy movements and the race for climate justice.
The Phoenix Moment – From Winds of Change
This is an excerpt from Winds of Change, the third novel in the Dandelion Trilogy.
By morning, the smoke had swallowed the sky. The day dawned in an eerie orange glow. The Council of All Beings disbanded and evacuated. Charlie and Zadie drove north, shoulders twitching and tensing as the fire tripped their evolutionary signal wires of animal unease. Charlie cast anxious glances in the rearview mirror. At the clearings, Zadie stared nervously at the thick plume towering like an eruption behind them. The wind spun around and licked their bumper, hurtling smoke and malice at their heels. Charlie fiddled with the radio and caught a brief report of the fast, roaring fire devastating hundreds, then tens of thousands of acres. Tiny mountain towns were evacuated then consumed. Asphalt roads heated into tire-melting rivers of molten tar. A gas line exploded in a boom louder than a bomb. The air turned toxic in the region. Hardware stores had long since run out of masks. The birds refused to sing, shrieking sharp warnings as they desperately winged north. Deer, skunk, raccoon, and all the larger mammals crashed through the underbrush and bolted across the road in front of their car, wild-eyed and half-crazed with primordial terror.
Around noon, the radio crackled and went dead. Charlie and Zadie threaded through one mountain ridge then the next. They passed caravans of firefighters headed south. At a gas station, the clerk watched the news, jittery. Prisoners, soldiers, and fire jumpers had formed a defensive line to the south, turning the fire away from the populated cities.
“But they won’t stop it running from there to here, all the way up to Oregon,” the clerk spat out bitterly. He turned to them and cocked his head. “My advice? Get as far from the smoke as you can.”
They did, wondering what happened when forest fires and gas stations collided. By the next evening, they had traveled to the thinning edge of the smoke. The sky returned to hazy blue. The clerks and townspeople stopped staring warily at the southern horizon. They breathed deeper. The radio reports came through clear. The news channels showed heartbreaking footage of the fire. Giant fir trees transformed into blazing torches hundreds of feet tall. Helicopters with puny loads of water rushed back and forth from lakes. Yellow flame retardant dumped in showers of disturbing chemical plumes.
Thirty miles from the place of the Council’s gathering, the town had been razed, reduced to blocks of ash and rubble. Strange, lone trees had survived. Seventeen people had not. The smoke choked people to death even when the flames were miles away. Two firefighters died when the wind trapped them behind an unexpected pivot of the fire. A family of campers had been caught in their car when the asphalt road scorched their tires to shreds. Thousands of people had crowded into the nearest towns and cities. Refugee camps had been set up in parking lots. Charlie sat on the edge of the creaking hotel bed with his elbows on his knees, staring at the television in wide-eyed horror.
“Zadie,” he began.
“I know,” she answered.
They checked out before dawn, heading south back toward the fire zone, to offer whatever aid they could.
They traveled to a town just outside of the fire zone where a relief center had been set up. The box store parking lot resembled an unruly flea market, laid out hodge-podge in a jumble of serpentine pathways. At the entrance, donations were arriving by the truckload: blankets, tents, clothes, camp stoves, canned goods, children’s toys, stacks of diapers. Volunteer relief workers scurried in ant lines, sorting through the overwhelming array. In front of the store, the frazzled manager argued with the police, gripping his mousy hair with one aggrieved fist and slapping the other palm against his thigh, helpless. He’d called the cops on the open air relief network, only to be told that, since the mega-corporation had suckered the town into constructing a giant municipal lot as part of the deal to lure in the store, the citizens technically owned the lot. The mayor, up for re-election, could be spotted passing out baby formula and teddy bears to families.
Charlie and Zadie parked a quarter mile down the road and walked along the grassy ditch, fingers entwined, hands swinging. Smiles burst across their faces at the sight of a familiar gold, green, and white flag flapping in the smoky breeze, an iconic flower emblazoned on it. On the chain link fence, a hand-printed banner boldly declared: The Dandelion Insurrection is here!
They checked-in with a distracted coordinator caught amidst too many phone calls, text messages, and queries. She barely turned her head at their offer to help, simply pointing to where they could lend a hand unpacking a truck. She had a roll of toilet paper under one elbow and a clipboard in her other hand. She raced to the back section of the ever-growing mounds of donations, hollering that – no matter how much the kids loved them – that crate of week-old puppies had to go to the animal shelter in the next town.
Charlie and Zadie had been passing boxes and bundles for twenty minutes before the guy next to Zadie tossed her a flirtatious wink and asked her name.
“Zadie,” she answered with a grin, catching the box of toothpaste tubes as he dropped it.
He stared agape at the slender woman in her faded rock band T-shirt and fire engine red skirt. Zadie bit back a laugh as she shoved the cuffs of her hooded sweatshirt past her elbows and passed the box to Charlie.
“And that’s . . . that’s,” the volunteer stammered, craning around her mane of black curls to stare at Charlie as he waited with a bemused smile.
“Yep,” Zadie replied cheerfully. “Now, keep passing the stuff before everyone starts hollering.”
Too late. Pivoting at the hold-up, the other volunteers spotted the duo. Soon, an excited cluster huddled around them. The pair deflected questions, politely refused to sign autographs, and tried to get everyone back to work.
“What in Goddess’ name is going on here?” a voice bellowed.
A short figure waded into the crowd, tapping shoulders and snaking between people to get to the center. A poof of frizzy and silvered honey-wheat hair encircled her face. Her skin hung about her knees as they stuck out of her shorts. She’d cut the sleeves off her T-shirt and a slather of sunscreen whitened her leathery skin. A tan line at her biceps hinted at long hours outdoors. The callouses on her hands and darker streaks in her fingerprint whorls suggested a lifetime of gardening. She peered up with the imperious, no nonsense attitude of all crones who claim their rightful place in human culture, and scrutinized the young pair with her squinted brown eyes.
“Well, that explains it,” she remarked. “Back to work, all of you.”
She snatched Charlie and Zadie by the elbows and pulled them along with her as the rest of the volunteers re-formed their bucket line.
“Bramble Ellison,” she introduced herself.
“Are you in charge then?” Charlie asked.
“Not really. This community is like a bunch of ducklings I fuss over,” Bramble answered with a twinkle in her eye. “Nice little flock, eh? Dandelions, the lot of them.”
Her voice burst with pride as she gestured to the crew of volunteers.
“I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you,” Bramble declared, shoving her frizzy hair off her exertion-reddened face. “Needs to be written down and I haven’t the time.”
“The miracle unfolding in the wake of disaster. The phoenix moment!” Bramble exclaimed, gesturing around. “I tried to tell the reporters, but they just wanted to take photos of towering flames and burnt houses. That’s not the real story.”
The most eye-popping, heart-grabbing tale to be told wasn’t the forest fire that flattened their town, but how years of preparation had readied the town to rise from the ashes, stronger – far stronger – than ever before.
“The corporate news chased the fire crew up the melting roads,” Bramble griped, “I suppose this couldn’t compete with the images of an apocalyptic inferno.”
She gestured ahead of them to a grassy area running along the edge of the parking lot. Shade tents sheltered small groups gathered on picnic blankets and in circles of mismatched folding chairs. Conversation rose and fell in murmuring waves. The atmosphere’s calm settled in Zadie’s heart like beeswax balm on chapped hands.
It was the last thing she expected in the wake of a disaster, but it swept over her like a breeze. Not a bland, monotonous peace, but the peace that comes after the tears spill and the heart empties its anguish like the libations poured in a healing prayer.
“What is this?” she asked.
“A world cafe on how to rebuild,” Bramble explained as she guided them through the clusters.
They had held empathy circles and listening sessions, too. When fire devours your home, you don’t just need food, water, and shelter. You need community, understanding, and empathy. You need space to express fear and grief. You need a chance to comfort and be comforted.
“Typically, our society treats anything but happy productivity as a disease, an individual failing, and sends those who do not conform to therapy,” Bramble said, shaking her grey hair, “but collective grief, mourning, anger, and shock is a different kind of tidal wave. We can’t outsource it to specialists. We must cultivate ways for our communities to cradle each other as we grapple with our human emotions.”
Our inner world was an ecosystem, entwined like mycelium and tree roots. Human beings were more than bundles of flesh. The emotions of one affected the whole, not just in families, but in entire communities.
“This is . . . incredible,” Zadie said, looking around, awestruck.
Charlie nodded, his head bent over his pen and notepad, taking notes for their next essay. This was, without a doubt, a story everyone needed to hear. The world cafe facilitator rang a bell – a salvaged wind chime pipe still clinging to a string – and the small groups stretched and laughed, shook hands and exchanged hugs. They rose and looked around, then found a new group. Notetakers flipped to a blank page in their notebooks. The facilitators posed another discussion question on how they should redesign and rebuild. One person in each group began to speak.
“I’m a veteran of Occupy Sandy,” Bramble shared proudly, “the Occupy protest-inspired disaster response to the hurricane that slammed New York City.”
She pushed her glasses back up her nose and eased into a fluorescent green beach chair, gesturing to the two young people to sit as she continued her story. Bramble had been visiting her sister when the storm struck, battering the coastal city built precariously on backfilled marshland. Photos of flooded taxicabs in lower Manhattan shocked the nation, giving an image to the scientists’ statistic-ridden warning about rising sea levels. But the disaster struck hardest in areas the news cameras never focused on. The shattered beachfront vacation houses evoked the concern of the nation, but it was the neighborhoods cut off from power, water, food, and medical care that bore the brunt of the storm. Shades of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana haunted them, specters of people on roofs awaiting rescue, dead bodies floating in the street, poor hospitals abandoned while wealthy neighborhoods were evacuated. If Katrina brought out the worst of the nation, Occupy Sandy was determined to empower the best.
“We weren’t a charity organization,” Bramble told them. “The organizers detested the ways that the charitable-industrial complex’s relief efforts demoralized and disempowered people. We were survivors. We had skills. We didn’t need to sit around wrapped in Mylar blankets. We dug in our heels and got to work.”
Collective organizing, mutual aid, self-designed relief systems, volunteer squads, barter networks, communal kitchens, and pop-up medical centers: there were dozens of ways people rose up to take care of their neighborhoods.
“Many of us wondered why we’d ever go back to ‘normal’,” Bramble mentioned with a sigh. “The life-as-usual downtown Manhattan was rebuilding was a disaster for poor people. In digging out from the storm, we found strength, resilience, and alternative systems that actually served our communities.”
But the disaster of corporate capitalism was unrelenting. It never abated, even when the skies cleared, the floods retracted, and the mud was swept out. The drive to go back to business-as-usual swallowed up the neighborhoods again, leaving mere traces of the changes – a tool library, a renters collective, a mutual aid network – but nothing on the scale that erupted in the wake of disaster.
Bramble returned home haunted by two things: one, that the bigger disaster was the economic system, and two, that there must be ways a community could prepare the response that Occupy Sandy unleashed – not during a crisis, but before. Could they actually deal with the on-going economic disasters in ways that built their resiliency for other kinds of disasters?
Bramble looked around at the pop-up relief center that had reclaimed the box store parking lot for public use. It was astounding, really. The tents, the supplies, the mutual aid network, the world cafes, and empathy circles . . . with these, the people in her town were holding a revolution against the automatic defaults of the corporate empire, right in the shadow of the box store, right on top of the pavement the citizens had been duped into paying for. Well, they were taking it back! Not all revolutions happened with guns. Bramble Ellison’s took place with volunteers and sharing, conversations and ideas.
Haunted and inspired by what she’d witnessed after Hurricane Sandy, Bramble began prepping – but not in a canned goods, basement-loaded-with-guns sort of way. She saw the handwriting on the wall. Fire was the disaster waiting to happen to her mountainous community. Drought plagued the region, worsening by the year. The conifer trees yellowed at the tips. The carpet of crackling orange needles thickened. Beetle-killed dead trunks dotted the mountainsides. The creeks dried up and took longer each season to return. Climate change turned up the heat and evapotranspiration sucked the moisture from the earth. She looked around her community and started asking: Disaster is a question of when, not if . . . so what will make us all stronger, together?
“I asked everyone: could we do what Occupy Sandy did? What would stop us?” Bramble explained.
The answers were surprising.
Fear. Isolation. Distrust.
“The default setting of US culture is individualism. We’re socially organized around atomized families and isolation,” Bramble declared with a disgusted snort. “It’s terrible. We all stay home, scrolling the Internet or streaming videos in our dark little rooms.”
To make a resilient community, she decided to start breaking the rules of social culture.
“Hostess with the most-est, that’s me,” she stated then laughed uproariously. She’d lived through the last vestiges of the wasp-waist, jello-laden nonsense. Her idea of hosting was more like convening potlucks and telling her neighbor to spread out picnic blankets in her front yard for everyone.
“It’s amazing how much bossiness you can get away with when you’re old,” Bramble told Charlie and Zadie. “Meddling is part of the crone’s ancient duty.”
Bramble convened events every day of the week and circulated the schedule. She was the invoker, the outreach coordinator, the cheerleader, the catalyst for the social needs of the community.
“When people come together, they can do anything. We had to ditch our social dependency on corporate culture, replace movies with game nights, and Internet with interaction.”
Before long, Bramble deepened the conversations from “get to know your neighbor” to “figure out how to take care of one another”. From there, she challenged them to envision their collective future in ways that corporate culture never dared.
“We had visionary futures dinners and storytelling evenings and problem solving brunches,” she reported with a gleeful chortle.
Connection was the key that unlocked everything, but, in the beginning, the people who showed up surprised Bramble.
“The people I thought would be at the top of the list to help weren’t. They were too busy; caught up with the rat race, with careers and ambitions, hectic schedules and daily concerns.”
The people who were interested in making immediate change were the ones already struggling to survive the economic disaster: the poor, students, the unhoused, migrants. That’s who showed up to help. That’s who wanted the communal kitchen, the tent medical centers, the bike repair shops, the clothing resale pop-up stores.
“But every system we tried, every idea we test-modeled, every seed we planted has born fruit this week. Look around.”
When the fires struck, the marginalized of the community weren’t forgotten: they were at the heart and center of organizing the community’s response.
“The quiet lines of connection we’ve been laying for years suddenly catalyzed into widespread action. The question some of us asked after Sandy is being asked by everyone now: should we go back to what was? Or should we go forward?”
Along the grass strips, under the trees, the world cafe brimmed with conversation. The wind chime bell rang out once again. The facilitators gathered everyone to “harvest” all of the ideas that had been shared. On large sheets of paper, scribes wrote down the comments as the notetakers reported back what they had heard from mothers and fathers, students and small business owners, artists and workers and activists, city planners and engineers, mechanics and teachers, nurses and doctors.
The ideas were visionary and practical, wide-ranging and sensible. Instead of rebuilding rows of big houses from flammable materials, some people suggested pooling land into a housing co-operative and reviving the commons. A team of architects wanted to design tiny houses made of less flammable, locally-available materials like rammed earth, adobe, cob . . . and at a fraction of the cost of the previous houses. The town officials were explaining how to put the schools and public libraries in the center of neighborhoods rather than on the outskirts. The department of public works was hoping to finally implement their plans for a citywide water catchment and management system.
“We are evolving. Here and now,” Bramble declared to Charlie and Zadie, chuckling as she listened to her community’s ideas.
They would take the fertile ash of disaster and compost tragedy into possibility. The old system had failed . . . and the next chapter was an unwritten book.
“It’s time for courage,” Bramble said, “for vision and for change.”
A community would always rise to its potential in the wake of a disaster, for better or for worse. The seeds planted beforehand would grow. Disaster capitalists would exploit. Disaster collectivists would empower. People would rebuild in the shape of their imaginations, narrow or wide, cookie-cutters or visionary, inside the box of the old culture or outside the lines of the past.
“What we do today matters to our future,” Bramble told them, “and your democracy challenge is helping us navigate this disaster together.”
At their surprised smiles, Bramble nodded.
“Oh yes, we were one of the places that picked up on your essays after the Fourth of July. We started a Democracy School, a street assembly, and a participation challenge,” she boasted proudly. “Come on, I’ll tell you over lunch – or brunch or whatever meal we’re at – I missed breakfast and am feeling peckish.”
She rose in a creak of joints and a groan of muscles, and led them through the corridors of stacked boxes to the wide tent that served as a community kitchen. The core staff had run the Food Not Bombs group for years, making meals and sharing them with anyone who dared to throw off class distinctions and be human with one another. A sign-up sheet for chopping, cooking, and washing dishes was full of names of volunteers. The kitchen bustled with lunch preparations, but snacks of fresh fruit and trail mix sat next to the coffee dispenser. Bramble collected an assortment and settled down at the edge of the tent, where she could survey the terrain, keeping an eye on the kitchen, world cafe, and pop-up relief center all at once. She let Charlie bring her a cup of coffee and then told the young couple about how the Democracy Challenge had inspired her community.
Bramble had issued an adaptation of the Democracy Lab’s constructive program called the Participation Challenge. She reached out to every group in town – everything from the Boys and Girls Club to writing groups to the Small Biz Association – and challenged them to try out one inclusive, participatory process. It might be a yearly agenda survey, a stakeholder discussion on the direction of the organization, an across-the-aisle dialogue on a divisive issue, a poll on what products to stock the shelves with, a mock participatory budget for the town – the list was endless. Hundreds of groups joined in, including the school sports teams whose listening circles revealed a surprising youth message: winning wasn’t as important to them as having fun. They’d rather lose while having a great time than win under a drill sergeant of a coach.
“The Participation Challenge activated our community,” Bramble reflected, eyes wide as her smile. “It was as if we suddenly woke up . . . like a field of golden dandelions blooming in the spring.”
Bramble had taken the flash of interest in those experiments, and issued a wide invitation to hold wisdom councils on the town’s 500 Year Vision Plan.
“We had just started the first of thirteen gatherings when the fire hit,” Bramble said with a shake of her head.
In some ways, they just picked up where they left off . . . but with a sense of urgency. The visionary exploration suddenly became a very real question. They were in a phoenix moment, rising from the ashes. Redesigning had become designing anew. Redevelopment now had an unexpectedly clean slate. Previous attachments and fears had been burnt away.
“No one alive today was involved in making the blueprint of the town. It grew hodge-podge,” Bramble explained, “but we’re still a community. We know our strengths and weaknesses. We have a guess at our coming future needs. We can plan for them and fix problems that were literally built into our town.”
Local democracy was about hardwiring resilience into the community. It was about being prepared to counter the inevitable predatory response of the worldviews that caused the disasters to begin with.
“Look at them,” Bramble said, gesturing to the people in the world cafe. “This community is coming up with a vision and a plan. When the disaster capitalists try to sneak in and snatch up real estate at rock bottom prices or steal reconstruction funds and contracts, each person here knows that there are other options. They know who to talk to if they want to order bulk building supplies as a co-operative. They have already pooled remaining resources – and their larger resource web – to meet immediate needs. In this kitchen, there are plates for and from everyone.”
The predatory vulture capitalists that would inevitably swoop in, trying to pick at the carcass of the burnt town, wouldn’t find isolated, shell-shocked families huddled in despair. They would find an active community ready to shoo them away as superfluous annoyances.
“But the old representative system weren’t the ones that made this happen,” Bramble stated emphatically. “Our town councilors and county commissioners, the mayor; they would have made backroom deals with speculators. We stopped that with our real democracy project.”
To politicians and officials, “getting back to normal” and returning to business-as-usual were often considered the only options. They felt the pressure of expectation. If Bramble Ellison’s hadn’t launched the local democracy initiative, their local officials would have had no idea that the populace was not only ready for a redesign, but already brimming with plans for it.
Fires devoured ailing woods – the Southern Rockies had burnt like a row of matches, one beetle-killed tree igniting the next. Scraggly, overcrowded stands of clear-cut regrowth ignited from lightning strikes. The sparks of electrical wires in drought-weakened undergrowth set the Sierras ablaze. The forests kept burning year after year. But there were also species of mushrooms that flourished after forest fires, erupting from the ashes to begin the process of returning life to the woods.
“We are the mushroom spores,” Bramble chuckled, “building the soil for what comes next.”
Forest regrowth would take time. City rebuilding was a process.
“But we can grow differently, in ways far better suited to this place,” Bramble insisted.
They could. They would. They must.
It was the only way forward for them all.
Originally published Dec. 11, 2020 at Riversun.com
Author/Actress Rivera Sun syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection and the sequels, The Roots of Resistance, The Winds of Change, and Rise and Resist – Essays on Love, Courage, Politics and Resistance and other books, including a study guide to making change with nonviolent action. Website: https://www.riverasun.com.
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