by Christopher R. Muscato
None of this would have been possible without the object to my left. That is crucial to understand.
The fact that I am writing this means my investigation has yielded results, extraordinary ones, results that must be made public. To understand this, however, I think it appropriate to consider the item that set me on this path.
Although it is folded now, resting in its way, it has sheltered me in rain and sun, acted as my accessory and prop, my anchor and moral compass. A rebellious green color, with an almost crystalline shimmer, it unfolds at the simplest touch and collapses without a fuss. It is a trustworthy, uncomplicated companion. And it was almost never mine at all. I had no intention of procuring it. I had no idea of the impact it would have, and that’s to say nothing of the person who gave it to me.
With the hypnotic humming of rails beneath me, I can close my eyes and still describe every detail of that moment. I can still picture clearly, in my mind, Sayeh.
Exceedingly pleasant was the day, precisely as one might hope to encounter for such an event. It was picnic weather, day-by-the-beach weather, fair weather.
Of course, this was no ordinary fair. It was a World’s Fair.
I had arrived in Chicago a few days earlier, the city being a scheduled part of my grand tour of the new American “green” cities. For months I had traveled the electric railways, dashing across the continent at the speed of progress, conducting a remarkably thorough survey of the newest infrastructural developments. To have missed the Sustainable Future’s Green World’s Fair, the first of its kind, would have been unthinkable; impeachable, even.
As I meandered about the raucous midway that preceded the main entry to the fairgrounds themselves, I took in the crowds surrounding me (at very close proximity, I might add). A gentle push here, an accidental elbow there. The thoroughfare was packed with anxious spectators, all polite enough, if a bit impatient considering the lack of opportunity to move any quicker than we were. One or two did recognize me, something to which I have never become accustomed, but for the most part I remained anonymous, just one of many eager spectators. From overalls still stained with the dirt of that day’s labor in the greenhouses, to the more fanciful cotton gowns with their organic motifs and swirling colors made possible by kinetic-motion-powered nanotech sewn into the ruffling folds of the fabric, it seemed that all of Chicago had come out for the occasion. And I could not blame them in the slightest.
As I finally reached the main gate, adorned in patterns of twisting vines, there was a sign:
We hereby dedicate this fair to the future generations. May we be ancestors worthy of remembering.
Let me pause here, dear reader, to explain the form and function of these so-called Green World’s Fairs, the inaugural exposition in Chicago already lauded as the prime example of what has since become an oft-imitated spectacle. Conceived as a way to support integration of national climate efforts into more globalized initiatives, the Green World’s Fairs are a chance for countries, climate NGOs, and activism groups to show off the latest in sustainable technology and practices.
And show off they did. Having entered through the main gate, my jaw hung open as I beheld marvels at every turn. The fair grounds were built within a garden, naturally, and each pavilion was replete with monuments to human ingenuity and optimism, a celebration of our faith in our ability to do better.
Throughout that morning I read about revitalizing indigenous architecture to deal with heat in the US Southwest and observed models of the tolou keur plots successfully being used to stave off the advance of the desert in Senegal. I sampled edible, biodegradable plastics made from crustacean shells, attended a seminar on hydroponics as infrastructure, and toured the interior of a prototype vertical greenhouse. Amusements abounded in the food sponsored by decentralized agricultural producers, the tree swings that held entire families, the chances to participate in music classes, poetry reading, and plein air painting. Equally diverting were the sweets, and on more than one occasion I found my plans sidetracked by simple, sucrose temptations scattered throughout the booths.
Of course, my book on the new infrastructure was not going to write itself, and so I interviewed experts in the booths, fair organizers, random passersby, really anybody whose opinion I thought could be incorporated into my travelogue/history monograph. A few people asked for autographs, others wanted my opinion on this technology or that idea. I found myself at one point giving an impromptu lecture in one of the food tents to some students, buzzing with the passions of youth as they debated the breakup of the old corporate order. I appreciated their vigor but found my own attention drifting to a passing cart peddling candied fruits, and I excused myself at the politest opportunity in pursuit, leaving the students to their dialogic salon.
It was warming up by this point and, as I had acquired my treat, I found a stool in the shade on which to sit and looked up. I’d been so focused on the booths and pavilions that I had yet to take a moment to truly appreciate the centerpiece of the fair.
Towering above the winding maze of gardens and pavilions was the World Tree, although I think it’s more fit to the moniker affectionately given to it by the media: The Chrysalis Palace. Staggering in height, the construction of this carbon-negative, grid-independent edifice seems nearly miraculous, having been made of nothing but recycled or sustainably produced materials. Wrapped in natural vines and flowers, with birds and squirrels chattering along it, the architecture itself is a cascade of flowing lines and asymmetrical but pleasing patterns laid into expansive crystalline panels. The apartments within its trunk are sustained by solar energy collected on the acre-long leaves of the tree and the dangling wind chimes that sing as they harvest kinetic energy. Greenhouses in the canopy provide food, fresh water is harvested from rain, fog, and dew (water can even be drawn straight from the humidity in the air, although to a less efficient degree!), and used water is filtered through hydroponic and aquaculture tanks before being reintroduced to the tap.
What a spectacle to behold!
My afternoon proceeded much as my morning, my mind and senses reeling from the abundance around me. Incredible it is then, with so much to see, that what I noticed next were the parasols.
First, it was a flash of color so rich that I momentarily forgot about the sugar-beet candies I had ducked into a booth to sample. Soon after, a woman passed by with a parasol so luminous that it managed to distract my eye from the bioengineered plants that turned harmful emissions into radiant flowers. A little further down the way, as I was reading about new processes in energy-efficient desalinization of ocean water, two gentlemen passed with similar parasols. Later, another couple. And another.
Before long it seemed that everywhere I turned, my surroundings were dotted with circular wonders, dazzling in their colors and remarkable in their artistry. Eventually, I resigned myself to the need to discover the source of these devices. I stopped by a group of women, all dressed in overalls or jumpsuits patched with organic motifs (the popular fashion, I’m told), and all of whom shaded themselves beneath magnificent parasols.
“Excuse me,” I tipped my hat and they surveyed me, mild interest in their eyes. “Could you tell me where you found those remarkable parasols?”
At this, the women lit up.
“Of course!” One of them chirped, as all three lowered their parasols so that I might have a better look at them. “There’s a woman selling them from a cart, she passed by not a moment ago and we simply fell in love with them.”
Her enthusiasm was understandable, understated even, I thought, as I was awarded my first up-close inspection of the instruments. Each parasol was unique, its design clearly crafted by loving and intentional hands. The first woman pointed out the art nouveau motifs of hers, asymmetrical vine-like whiplashes adorning the top. The next woman proudly demonstrated that her clear, dome-shaped parasol could be removed from its handle and turned into a makeshift greenhouse for a small garden. The final woman’s parasol was earthy, subdued when viewed from above, but the interior was a festival of cloth, fabrics folded into each other in dazzling array.
“It’s modeled after the underside of a mushroom cap,” the owner beamed.
“And that’s not all!” The first woman exclaimed as she removed her tablet from her bag and attached it to a clip at the base of the branch-shaped handle. The device blinked and began to charge.
“It’s a solar panel!” the owner squeaked, shaking with glee. “The parasol can collect and store about 250 watts of energy in an hour!”
She held it out for me to observe. As I turned the fascinating object in my hands, it became clear: I had to track down this seller of parasols.
Through the fairgrounds and gardens I went, energized by newfound purpose. I simply had to speak with the person responsible for these creations. At several points, I stopped passersby with parasols to point me in the last-known direction of the vendor, and finally— finally I found her.
Lunching beneath a tree, apple in one hand and book in the other, she reclined next to a sturdy bicycle that had clearly seen many years of use. Attached to the bicycle was a simple cart with an awning expanded over an opening, through which I could glance parasols lining the walls and sticking out of barrels at odd angles. The sign painted just below this window read:
For Sale or Trade: Sayeh Sáfári’s Brilliant Bumbershoots
“Sayeh Sáfári?” I ventured, tipping my hat to the woman beneath the tree. She looked up, surprised at the intrusion, but in a way to suggest that she had been lost deep within the pages of her book and not that my presence was unwelcome. She gulped down the bite of her apple and popped off the ground. Her garments, from her brightly colored hijab to the loose linen trousers overlaying well-worn boots, were all covered in flowing floral motifs. Most seemed to have been hand embroidered.
“How can I help you?” She asked, dusting off her hands.
For all of my excitement, the question caught me off guard. I had been so focused on tracking down this purveyor of parasols, or bumbershoots as she called them, that I hadn’t taken the time to actually consider what I would ask her. I only knew that I wanted to ask her…something.
“Um- your parasols,” I stuttered. “They’re wonderful. I’ve seen them throughout the fair.”
“It’s been a good day,” she shrugged modestly. “The people are in good moods. Fairs like this thrive on optimism, the kind that makes people feel like tomorrow’s challenges are just a day’s worth of hard work away from being solved.”
“Hard not to get caught up in that.”
Again, she shrugged.
And that was how I met Sayeh Sáfári. A most generous host, she invited me into her workshop towed behind the bicycle and also her storefront, cramped though it was (I eventually settled on leaning through the window from the outside in order to survey the space).
She showed me how she had adapted solar-tech into printable, pliable fabric, how she modeled the ribs and joints after tree branches, how she integrated the wiring and miniaturized deep cycle batteries into the handle. She showed me her notebook, full of sketches and designs, no two alike.
“Aren’t you worried about me stealing your intellectual property?” I joked at one point, reveling in all the secrets of the trade I had already learned. Sayeh looked at me for a moment, head cocked in an expression of genuine puzzlement before she laughed and waved off the comment.
“I upload everything I do to public solartech servers,” she said as she moved onto the next stage of the manufacturing process and began to demonstrate her embroidery techniques.
With every minute, Sayeh Sáfári became more and more fascinating. So, when my tour of her workshop reached its completion, I asked if she would object to my company as she resumed her work. She readily agreed.
Together Sayeh and I walked the fairgrounds, stopping occasionally to peek into a booth or listen to some music. She rode her bike at a slow pace, towing her cart behind her, and made little show of advertising her wares. Nevertheless, people came. They glanced her parasols and stopped for a closer look. Rarely did anyone select their own parasol from her supply; Sayeh saw to it that each person was matched with a bumbershoot that matched the very essence of their being. This she assumed as her sacred responsibility, and hers alone. While the result was often not the parasol the individual had first intended to leave with, they regardless seemed happier than they would have been had the selecting been left to their own devices. Sometimes money was exchanged, sometimes there was a bartering of fresh produce, artwork, or arrangement to provide various services from bicycle repair to gardening support.
“Why bumbershoots?” I asked at one point as I examined a uniquely sparkling parasol that had bioluminescent threads interwoven into the fabric. “Even ‘umbrella’ is a more known term.”
“I like bumbershoot,” Sayeh ran a loving hand over the handle of a parasol hanging from the back wall of her cart. “It sounds like a young and silly plant.”
By the time that the solar cells were beginning to distribute the day’s harvest into the sparkling lights strung throughout the gardens, the sun long ago shrouded by the fantastic towering cityscape that is Chicago, my feet were tired. Her cart almost entirely emptied of its wares, Sayeh and I shared a round of chaga mushroom tea sweetened with honey from an apiary in the World Tree.
“Something else, isn’t it?” I asked, staring up in awe up at the artificial arboreal monument towering above us, bathed in the soft glow of twinkle lights and AI gardening drones that blinked like fireflies. Sayeh looked up at it as well, and shrugged.
This was now the third time I had observed this behavior, and while I had written it off at first, I found its repetition puzzling.
“You don’t seem impressed,” I observed cautiously. Sayeh fidgeted with her bicycle handles.
“It’s all very nice,” she said. “The idea of it.”
“But not the practice of it?”
“There is a complex relationship between promise and practice,” she said softly, then turned to face me more directly. “Everything in there could change the world, but only if actually implemented, only if demanded. A fair like this showcases wonderful opportunities, brighter futures, but sometimes people end up blinded by that brightness.”
I couldn’t disagree with the sentiment. But as I watched the warm lights saturate the fairgrounds in their gentle radiance, I felt nothing but comfort. For me, even after all this time, to see such things felt as if I were walking in a dreamscape, a land of impossible wonders. Fantasies made real.
“You have to admit that progress must start somewhere,” I nodded towards the World Tree. “If you say we risk being blinded, I say our eyes will adjust to the brightness. And then, all that’s left is a path of light, illuminating a way through the darkness. But something has to create that light, to spark that fire.”
Sayeh seemed to weigh the thought in her mind as she fidgeted with her tea. She lifted the cup, made of recycled materials.
“Look at the underside,” she instructed, holding it higher. I leaned forward. There, stamped on the bottom, was a logo.
“It will take time to completely dissolve the old corporate order,” I conceded, a hint of warmth stinging in my ears. I hadn’t realized that the fair was using one of those remaining corporations to manufacture their compostable tableware. “At least the corporate infrastructure is being repurposed for something good.”
I had wanted to say more in defense of the fair, but in that moment I felt my focus waning, the soft humming of electric lights and the sight of that logo straining memories from the back of my mind, feelings that I had not visited in some time.
“We’ve come a long way,” my tone was soft, casual when I spoke, my words aimed more at myself than anyone else. “There was a time when this all seemed impossible. A time when I-”
“-I know who you are,” Sayeh interrupted, glancing down for a moment as she stirred her tea. “I read Green Rebellions when I was younger. It changed my life.”
The comment snapped my back to the present moment, and I straightened up. After spending the entire day with Sayeh, I had no idea she recognized me. Not too many people did anymore, and honestly, I was fine with that.
“Your work reshaped investigative journalism,” she continued, now facing me directly. “You exposed the greenwashing, hypocrisy, corruption, and disingenuous blandishments of the corporate age. Your work laid the foundations for the green infrastructure, for the railways. You of all people should see the danger in false promises.”
“Which is why I, of all people,” I leaned in, “can see the effects of those promises, finally put into practice. When I wrote Green Rebellions all those years ago, very few people dared even imagine that we would accomplish all this.”
I gestured to the fair.
“But there is still so much work to be done.”
“Of course there is,” I agreed. “But we’re on the right path, and now that path is lit by solar power.”
Our conversation continued like this for some time, I advocating on behalf of the progress we had made, Sayeh retaining her guarded caution, her skepticism. She was well read, well versed in the most contemporary theories and debates, and an engaging foil as we talked into the night. I admired her youthful passion, which proved a match for my sage wisdom, a wisdom earned through years of hard work and toil and change. And with those years came age, and that meant I was getting tired.
I yawned, and Sayeh offered to walk me to my hotel in the train station. Outside the gates, we stopped as she provided a claim ticket to the valet.
I could not blame her for her somewhat jaded perspective; her generation came of age during the change, as the corporate order was gradationally dismantled and new infrastructure designed to replace it. It was a chaotic era, one of experimentation and failure, of challenges and successes. But I remembered clearly the world before, what it had been like when the dominion of corporations seemed inevitable, their reign eternal. I remembered all I had fought for, and what that fight had entailed. And now, I had no discomfort enjoying the fruits of our labor.
Luckily, I was spared the need to further justify my predilections by the arrival of the valet.
“Thank you,” Sayeh said to the man as he unhooked the assemblage from his electric ATV and she began to hook it up to her bicycle. I took a step back.
Sayeh looked up from her work, over to her cart, and back to me.
“It’s my home.”
She sensed my hesitation and waved me over to show me what looked like a modified pop-up camper that fit into the bumbershoot cart. Behind that was another rig, the edges of greenery visible through the domed roof. When the entire caravan was assembled, one cart towed from another and that from the bicycle, they seemed something from a child’s imagination.
“You live…here?” I didn’t know how to phrase the question, or how to steady my tone. Sayeh had been more than courteous to me today, and I did not wish to offend her through my clear surprise at her lifestyle. She noticed, of course, and rolled her eyes in a way that seemed almost affectionate. I suspect that mine was not the first reaction of this kind she has experienced.
“I’ve traveled the continent in this. I live here, I do most of my work here, and the greenhouse in tow behind my camper provides much of the food I eat or barter with. Solar panels provide electric power for the bicycle; it’s too heavy with all of this for me to get very far under only my own power. But then, I am pretty good with solar tech.”
“But why?” I asked, genuine curiosity now replacing my knee-jerk shock. Sayeh looked back at the fair.
“Promise and practice. A nomadic life is one of little waste, little excess, and a close relationship with the earth. It’s a simple life, and a pleasant one.”
I learned a great deal more from Sayeh about her lifestyle, her parasols, her dreams, her past, her philosophies as we walked back to the station. Then, she bid me farewell with an embrace the warmth of which I will never forget, and we parted ways.
I was restless that night in my hotel room. As I plucked a few candies from a tin I’d purchased at the fair, I checked my tickets, repacked my single suitcase. I find it best to travel light, even on a journey as extended as mine. It occurred to me in that moment how similar our lives really were. In pursuit of this project, I have spent well over two years on the rails, a nomad in my own right, acquiring little beyond the stories I commit to digital paper.
This revelation did little to calm the buzzing in my brain, the pounding momentum of thought like the steam-engines of old chugging along iron rails. I flipped mindlessly through a pamphlet from the fair, when a small detail caught my eye. A logo, inserted into a small cluster of sponsors.
I shook my head. There it was again, the same logo that had appeared on the bottom of the compostable cups. Even with all of the resources that were concentrated into this Green World’s Fair, the organizers just couldn’t manage the pragmatics without corporate help. At least things were getting better.
I turned the pamphlet over. There it was again, that logo. And a name. Several names.
I set down the tin of candies.
I knew these names. I had written about them before, old advocates of the late corporate order, lower-level board members on corporations that made sweeping promises to support green initiatives while secretly funneling money into the exploitation of less-regulated markets, often by violence, for years. My work helped bring down these corporate enterprises, exposed them. The corporations were dissolved, but the laws at the time were too loose for criminal or civil prosecution of all but the top CEOs. Most mid-tier board members and executive secretaries faded into obscurity, hidden behind curtains of wealth to live out their days in isolated irrelevance. Or so I’d thought.
In an instant, my tablet was in my hand and an inch from my nose.
It was past midnight by the time my eyes began to blur, although my previous tiredness remained forgotten. I put down the tablet and decided to take a walk to clear my head. As I passed under streetlights along the Chicago River, I could still see the World Tree illuminated, and I shook my head.
My research over the last few hours, a scant entry into what I knew was destined to become a consuming project, had already yielded connections between corporate interests and nearly every corner of the World’s Fair. The national booths beamed with technology from government-subsidized contractors. NGOs and activist organizations had corporate lobbyists on their boards. Even the directors of the fair itself seemed uncomfortably cozy with retired CEOs and tycoons of all sorts.
Sayeh was right. What I had mistaken for conspiracy-mongering was in fact, enlightenment. It seemed that the old corporate order, the very one I fought to dismantle in my youthful zeal as an investigative journalist, was not going as quietly into that good night as I believed. Even if the structures were being dismantled, the old guard remained active.
These thoughts troubled me as I walked. After my years of fighting, after seeing real progress being made, I wanted to believe in the Green World’s Fair, to accept those feelings of safety and warmth and promise. Was it nothing more than a scam?
And then I thought of Sayeh.
It wasn’t just artifice. Beneath the glitz and the glamor, there was a promise, and that promise was worth celebrating. It was not long ago that the electric railway system to which I have dedicated my life was nothing more than a promise, and one that seemed vague at best. I had believed in that promise, and that faith gave me strength through the long fight to make it a reality. And I wondered: Can we ever achieve the practice without first reveling in the promise?
I didn’t know. What I did know was that for all the wondrous things I saw that day, inventions and technologies to reshape the world, changes that would affect the lives of billions, perhaps the most radical of all was the sight of Sayeh, waving goodbye as she pedaled away with her caravan in tow.
I looked back to the Green World’s Fair, poking through the cityscape. All that promise, not yet in practice. And us, in a state of transition, not yet something but confident that we will be, but only if we continue to put the work into ensuring our transformation. A state of possibilities. A passing light from the lake reflected off the World Tree and caught my eye. I smiled. A state of chrysalis.
The next morning, I awoke early despite the miniscule amount of sleep I had received and felt oddly energized. Gears of passion, long dormant, had been set back into motion. I had work to do, and I needed the comforting whirring of the rails beneath me in order to do it. As I passed the front desk and prepared to board my train, however, a clerk stopped me.
“Excuse me!” She yelled, and I turned. She scampered over, and my eyebrows popped up as I saw what was in her hands.
“This was left for you,” she informed me. I took the object, smiling. The clerk tipped her head.
“That’s quite the remarkable parasol.”
“No,” I smiled. “It’s a bumbershoot. A brilliant bumbershoot.”
Christopher R. Muscato is a writer from Colorado, winner of the XR Wordsmith Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase, and Terra.do climate fellow. His recent stories can be found in Shoreline of Infinity, House of Zolo, and Solarpunk Magazine.
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