World of 2051: The Shields Holler Commune

World of 2051: The Shields Holler Commune

We are pleased to publish the first installment in a new utopian series by New Kentucky staff writer Cass Giles about socialism in the year 2051. When we’re in the unforgiving grind of menial and grueling tasks necessary to our organizing projects, what gives us strength is our relationships with our comrades and the vision we have together of a better world. In this piece of speculative fiction, Cde. Giles imagines a decolonized North America where the dream of communist abundance has come true and, perhaps more importantly, where people actually take care of their neighbors. Love, fight, win! - W.E.


The morning sun and a gentle mountain breeze gently touch Shari Keeney’s face, waking her a couple of hours earlier than usual. The night before she’d set her bedroom’s curtains and window to automatically open respectively widely and narrowly at 8:00 AM rather than their usual time of 10 AM to help her gently awaken before her natural sleep cycle. She was usually able to stay within her body’s preferred rhythm, even back when she had more responsibilities, before she’d “retired,” but today was a very special one full of important firsts and lifelong plans coming to fruition.

Leaning over to her nightstand, she puts on her glasses and the personal Device they’re synced with. As her eyes focus, in the corner of her field of vision a stream of subtle notifications float past, most of them related to today’s itinerary, including a message from her grandchild Tara. She smiles at the message preview without opening it yet. The thought of seeing Tara gives her the willpower to pry herself out of her warm, airy soft but supportive bed she’d been blissfully absorbed into.

Born nearly two decades before the turn of the century, she was now the age of 69 (“Nice…” she might say to reference an old joke about the number). She was certainly aging, but her quality of life had been so much better these last couple decades. In most ways she actually feels healthier than when she was in her thirties when she first found her way to Shields Holler Commune.

After she selects an upbeat playlist to accompany her, she starts her morning stretches and exercises while catching up on some of her more essential notifications, starting with the message from Tara.

“Good morning Mamaw, I’m so excited I could…!” A cartoonish simulated explosion appears over their image and the whole message window before it pops out of existence.

Simple and silly, Shari laughs sharply, exhaling quickly while trying to inhale during the “cat pose” part of her stretching regimen.

A moment later she opens the attachment that came with the clip: various information and instructions on their trip together. The message doesn’t ask Shari to bring anything for Tara, but she has a few things in mind anyway…

Before she can finish that thought, not to mention the rest of her morning regimen, she becomes aware of neighbors at her front door: first by another notification projected into her field of vision by her glasses, then by the clear but dull sounds of knocking echoing throughout her home.

Although her home’s walls were nearly soundproof: made of a nearly indestructible, perfectly insulating blend of concrete (specially designed to utilize excess carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the environment to strengthen it), the structure was essentially one large dome (roughly 10 meters or 34 feet around, about 6 meters or 20 feet tall, 175 square meters or 1900 square feet interior space, divided into three storeys counting the basement), what sounds were made inside or allowed in through windows or doors would easily resonate around much of the acoustically perfect space.

Her bedroom and adjoining bathroom were near the front door on the ground floor so she heard them quite clearly and quickly went to the door to let them in. Looking outside, she saw no less than six neighbors (five humans, one dog) awaited at her doorstep.

“Good morning, beautiful comrades!” Shari greets them warmly and gestures them inside through the arched doorway.

“Well hey there sis, still in your jammies? Reckon you ain’t goin’ anywhere today, are ya?” Her neighbor Keith jokes as he takes off his shoes. Shari laughs, slightly embarrassed, and starts to reply, but first another neighbor speaks up first.

“We hope you don’t mind us dropping by so early, we just wanted to get here with a little time before you were about to leave!” Suraya apologizes for herself and her husband Darien at least, if not for everyone.

Norbert, everyone’s most beloved canine neighbor in this section of the commune, stood on his hind legs, putting his front paws on Shari’s torso and his tongue to her face to greet her.

“Awwww, well I’m so happy to see all of you!” She gently settles Norbert down and starts scratching him behind the ears as she escorts her guests to the living room couches.

Norbert walks over to another neighbor, Tenskwatawa Bowling, and plants his face in their hands as they sit down on the right corner of the same couch Shari is sitting on.

Over the din as everyone else settled in, the two-spirit elder’s soft but powerful voice spoke clearly: “Whenever you’re packing, I hope you can find room for these.” they say, pausing from petting Norbert to hand Shari a small bag.

Looking deeply touched at everything she sees looking through the bag, one thing she immediately pulls out to share with everyone: an aged but well-preserved corn-husk doll with hair made from corn silk and clothes made of husks, without a face, all handmade according to tradition.

“Oh my goddd…”

“Remember that first Green Corn Festival after you and your boy Francis, Tara’s dad, moved here?”

“Frank now.” Shari interjects with a laugh.

“Frank, of course! Yes he was too cool for ‘Francis’ just like he was too cool for this corn-husk doll when we had him make some with Tecumseh and Teharonhiawako when they were around his age.”

“Yeah, aww, Baby Fwank.” Pantomiming crying, Suraya adds. “We had to be both the cool kids and the responsible adults at that festival, since we were just in our early twenties, and they all looked up to us. Without us providing an example, they couldn’t keep a bonfire going on their own! We made corn-husk dolls with them almost every year, though, I’ve still got the one Darien made me!”

“Yes, exactly.” Tenskwatawa continues. “Well, Teharonhiawako kept that first one Frank made here all this time! She found it while she was packing to move up North with that fella of hers to their new Onondaga commune near Lake Ontari:io. She thought Tara might like it, as a memento of our families first coming together.”

A collective “awww…!” is shared by everyone in the room except for Norbert, who sensing the emotional vibe of the moment, wags his tail and prances around, generally doing his best to also act happy and excited.

Shari received several more small, mostly sentimental gifts for either herself or Tara as people shared them from around the room along with their personal or practical reasoning.

She quietly debated with herself whether some of them would even actually fit or would have to be shipped via space mail.

The clothes and most other belongings she wanted to pack were of also sentimental value more than practical. Such intangible characteristics aside, functionally similar if not better versions of these items could be quickly and easily fabricated anywhere there were adequate tools and base materials like carbon, which certainly included the megacity in Earth orbit if it included little communes in the hills like theirs.

She wasn’t really sure how much of her own things she’d still be able to fit in the only bag she’d planned to bring.

In the end however, after even managing to squeeze in both of the delicate, folded and sealed cotton granny quilts she’d planned to bring, one her grandmother had given her as a child and another one she’d made over the years for a once-future, now-adult grandchild, one bag did indeed suffice.

“See? Told you, love.” Angela Hooks said coyly, standing next to Shari in her bedroom, having stayed to help you pack while everyone else waited outside. “Trust me, you’ll both be glad you packed these. Yeah, they can make Device mods up there, but I got these from the Lagos Megacity, no one else is doing what they’re doing with Device mods right now.”

“You were right, typical.” Shari says as she leans over, touches both Angela’s hands and kisses her on the cheek. “…and yeah, okay? I’m def gonna just trust you on that one. That’s your whole thing and I’m just like…I build things at the workshop sometimes? Speaking of, I made this!”

She opens up the top drawer of her nightstand and unveils what initially looks like a bundle of construction paper cut into various shapes. She sets it on the ground and with an invisible command from her Device interface, its surfaces unfold and expand into a powered wheelchair.

“Oh nice!” Angela cheers as she sits down in it and helps secure her bag on the back.

“Let’s go!”

Shari and her neighbors made their way down the main path of the mountain, parallel and at times crossing bridges over the creek (or “crick”) and its streams that intersected it and provided most of the commune’s water. During lulls in conversation, the water’s babbling could still be heard, not blocked out by their silent, electric-powered personal conveyances. Birds, bugs, and other living things were the only other noticeable sources of noise besides themselves and the wind in the trees.

“I’m just thinking about how when I first walked up this wild, old mountain path to Shields Holler Commune over twenty years ago, back when the revolutions were happening around the Dissolution, before this was part of the Appalachian Free Assembly, I barely had anything: just me, my youngun, and what we could carry. But y’all just immediately took us in…not just like we were folks you could put to work, the best I’d thought I could hope for, but…”

Angela fills in as Shari trails off, patting her on the knee. “…but as living beings with unlimited potential? That would grow, flourish, and become valued in their common ecosystem if they were given an environment and resources to thrive?”

“Yes.”

You could barely tell now, but a desolate former coal town had once existed nearby, and the first roads up the Shields Green Mountain where the holler was based dated from back then, although besides roads and some historically and/or culturally significant sites, most buildings from then had decayed and been recycled. Anything that couldn’t be recycled had of course been returned to nature.

“There’s more critters out here all the time.” Keith muses, noticing even before Norbert how many rabbits, foxes, and even whole families of deer they were stirring up as they passed.

“They get closer all the time. I know they’re wild but I hope one day they let us pet ‘em like them ones in Japan.” He says gesturing at the deer in particular.

“Yeah, maybe someday they will. They definitely ain’t nearly as afraid of us anymore now that we just stay on these paths with these less dangerous vehicles,” Angela adds.

They go past dozens of self-similar circular neighborhoods as they go down the mountain, most of them containing multiple distinctly similar domes like hers, made within a decade or so of when she first moved here.

“Yep, I remember y’all couch-surfing around the commune for at least a week and a half, while we got them ol’ homemade construction robots goin’ and they printed y’all that ol’ house.” Keith says out of the corner of his mouth while vaping locally-grown herbs.

“I still remember the disappointment in Frank’s face when he realized they were more like automated backhoes with concrete foam-spraying nozzles where their shovels would be instead of some kinda androids he could be friends with.” Darien adds.

“They was slower’n shit back then too!” Keith continues. “They’d print ‘em by layers over days and weeks before you could go in and finish ‘em up. Still faster than the old way though, no doubt. That big ol’ gym took us about a month, reckon it still woulda took better part of a year if we did it the old way.”

“Lot of people didn’t like that irregular pattern at first, but the nooks and crannies on those old buildings from where those different layers of rock hardened…they made great trellises for all kinds of sprouts, greens, peas, beans, even squash…no telling how many herbs and flowers.” Tenskwatawa noted, gesturing at the endless examples growing all around them.

“Unlike the old, capitalist, colonial buildings, these never tried to stand apart from nature. We always tried to integrate them deeply with the land. I think of that first generation we made like a system of artificial caves, crafted with perfect sizes, shapes, and temperatures for small to medium groups of people to inhabit, while still benefiting the rest of the environment, especially on the outside,” Darien offers, drawing from his decades of construction and development at the Holler and ones relatively nearby throughout this Region of the Appalachian Free Assembly.

“Also besides trellising, they’re great as shade, windbreakers, and just barriers in general to help the different sections of companion crops grow and flourish together. The layout of every neighborhood and the space within and without them is planned so each different organism is mutually benefiting from the sustainable ecosystem we’ve cultivated, from microorganisms to ourselves…” Suraya, who was always especially involved with the permaculture development of the Commune says. “Closer to the domes we can grow a lot of the ‘Three Sisters,’ all those different kinds a’ beans and squash, then out a little further all our different heirloom strains of maize, I especially love these.” She says grabbing a stalk of rainbow maize along the path. Nowhere near ripe, she lets it go.

“Anything even a little more challenging we used to take for granted like garlic and onions, or especially like herbs for medicine or any kind of purpose, you have to really plan these things out with the whole commune according to your needs instead of the old way where they just cleared forests and planting thousands acres of one thing and poisoning anything else that dared try to exist there…” Her voice trails off into a palpable silence.

The friends and comrades have reached the local docks on the Ohio River and it’s almost time for Shari to go.

“From the beginning, y’all gave us all a share of everything the whole commune and nature had to offer. Y’all took us into your homes and provided for all of our needs with no expectation of payment or even gratitude. Only that we’d participate and contribute best as we could to help y’all meet the commune’s goals and needs, and once they were met, we’d all reap the rewards…” Shari says, her wheelchair pulling up to the boarding area.

“…Instead of some rich asshole somewhere else who didn’t do anything but claim to ‘own’ the things god or nature provided us. Back in the day, bootlickers would come from all around to prop up fellas like that. Nowadays, I’m glad there’s more folks like us: decent people willing to set aside their other shit to stand, fight, work, and build together. That’s the power of recognizing we ain’t separate from each other, or from nature, but we’re all in it together. Ain’t no room for the kinda extreme self-centered shit there used to be when people were so foolish they were killing us all. If any of us truly wants to do well, we have to work together for the benefit of all.”

“You’re goddamned right, Shari. Don’t let them forget it up there.” Tenskwatawa intones with a clenched fist before leaning to hug Shari as she stands up from her chair.

“We’re gonna miss you so much, talk to us soon.” Suraya says to Shari as she and her husband Darien take turns hugging her. “Keep us updated.”

“I will!” She replies. Norbert licks Shari’s hands ferociously and clings to her, understanding she’s about to depart. “Aww, love you baby boy.” She says to him, understanding that while he is a senior dog he is also still indeed a baby.

“DO. NOT. Do not, come back just for us.” Angela tells her, placing her hands on her shoulders and making eye contact for emphasis. “We’ve all heard about how the retirees live up there. Sure, it’s fun down here compared to what we grew up with, definitely compared to what we came to expect, but we still have gravity, weather, disease, bugs…”

“They kinda have most of that same stuff up there in one way or another…” Shari replies.

“Fine, yeah, but less of it. Don’t argue with me. You get up in that microgravity weighing hardly anything and get a feel for not having to use all your muscles to hold that rickety skeleton up…let’s just say if you miss any of us, talk us into coming up there to see you before you come back, maybe?”

Shari starts to joke that they’re desperate to get rid of her, but another couple of notifications, including one from Tara and two from Frank, remind her, jokes aside, of the contrary: her presence is a gift she must try to share with everyone she loves, as best as she can, for as long as possible.

Standing on the corner of the main body’s wing closest to the shore where it had opened to reveal a ramp leading to seating further within, she chokes back tears as they place her bag and folded-up wheelchair onto the hydrotram.

The 6 meter (or roughly 20 foot) aquatic vehicle actually looked more like an aircraft than a boat, its entire body one single wing, except for a barely-visible, submerged additional “wing” protruding from its underside into the water beneath. A short tone announced the hydrotram was ready to depart.

All her items loaded and all hugs exchanged, she is finally so overcome by more emotions than she can process. Tears of joy, love, growth, loss, change, mortality, impermanence…tears of indeterminate goodbyes… finally escape as she waves goodbye: “I love and appreciate you all so much. Blessings, and solidarity forever!”

They all wave back (except for Norbert, who howls) as the craft’s ramp unfolds and its wing folds shut. It tilts, steers away from the riverbank and quickly accelerates while hovering just above the water, reaching a cruising speed of around 550 kilometers (or 350 miles) per hour. Even though Shari didn’t manage to leave the Shields Holler Commune until after noon, she should get to Frank’s home in the Harambee Arcology in the Cincinnati District a little more than 200 kilometers away well before 1 PM. That should give the three of them enough time to catch up in person together, and for her and Tara to catch their train to the Boston District at 3:30. After departing, they would arrive in Boston in around two hours. They should be able to have dinner and catch a hydrotram out to the MassBay Spaceport in time for their flight later that evening around sunset.

She takes a video clip of herself to send to Tara. She puts the words “I’m also so excited I could…” on the message, but instead of just exploding, her cartoon animation blasts her to space.

“I love you and your pop, I can’t wait to see you both! …but I’m especially excited about seeing the cosmos with my favorite person in the universe!” She adds to her message, with lots of hearts and other affectionate emoji, as well as ones relating to space.

She looks out the window as she zips Northwest over the water, watching the landscapes distinctly but smoothly interchange back and forth from untamed wilderness preserves like mountains, forests, and prairies to rural communes with their sparse and subtle paths and structures among dense rows of distinct, vividly-colored polyculture crops.

Other traffic along the river gradually increases until she can spot the tallest buildings of Cincinnati District approaching, like the Queen City Tower which was built when she was a kid, or more recently completed Peter H. Clark Spire, now part of her son and grandchild’s own aforementioned commune, the Harambee Arcology.

The people had decidedly voted for the name, which means “let us all pull together” in Swahili, a concept of solidarity. They, especially the older generation, had also voted to variously honor a tragic, local historical figure, the Great Silverback ape Harambe, who was named after the aforementioned concept, via a human inspired by the song “Harambe (Working Together for Freedom)” by 20th Century reggae musician Rita Marley. Both the ape and the human who named him had lived and died long before.

With a diameter several kilometers across, enclosing dozens of square kilometers of area just on the ground level, the rest of the Arcology came into view soon after its nascent Spires.

She was glad to behold with her eyes the place where her mind and heart were already focused because of the loved ones waiting to meet her there, and she couldn’t wait for what was next.