Omelas is a self-sufficient organism composed by the entanglement of plants and humans. #Re-designing Infrastructures
In 1973 Ursula K. Le Guin wrote the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, a parable on injustice and responsibility. It tells the story of the city of Omelas and how its happiness relied on the inhumane conditions in which a child lived locked in a cellar. Those who walked away from Omelas were the few who rejected the unfair living situation of the child. Omelas’s terms were that if the child leaves the cellar, the joy and fortune of its citizens will end. The ones that left the prosperous city could do nothing but refuse their lack of freedom. Staying in Omelas meant to live knowing that a child was sacrificed for their good life. They thought they could not live feeling guilty, angry, and impotent. By leaving, they expressed their disagreement with the unfair conditions of the child.
This text reflects my first impressions after visiting Omelas. It is part of my ethnobotanical research on the transduction of sentient signals into human languages. I have learned the technique of transduction in Plant Studies. I am specialized in the transduction of vegetable signals such as movement, shape, taste, smell, color, but also pollination and photosynthesis. I have chosen Omelas as my case study because it is one of the first cities in the world taken over by plants. Thus, it is also the first example of a Planthropocene area in the world. Planthropocene is the new geological epoch in which humans have developed a collaborative way of living with plants instead of killing them, as it was the case of the Anthropocene.
Transduction is an unreliable method used by humans to attune to the sentience of vegetables. Signals from vegetation are generally imperceptible and intangible. They do not know about time or space boundaries, so for humans to tune with them, they need sensory perceptions beyond our common ones. For example, this is by understanding the meaning of a certain plant movement or internal processes invisible to the human eye. Vegetation does not talk to humans, but humans can listen, read, and interpret what they say. I like to think transduction is a way of becoming-with the sentient world to access their ways of knowing and telling. What follows is my reconstruction of what happened to the ones who stayed in Omelas through the stories I transduced from Omelas’ vegetation.
When I arrived at Omelas, my first stop was at the path that leads to the entryway of the city. The coastal flowers – lavender, sea kale, and rosemary – that surround the entrance introduced me to a time that did not exist anymore. I sat on a rock and smelled the breeze of Omelas in 1973. The city was dressed in handmade garlands of flowers for the Festival of Summer. Everybody enjoyed the celebration, but the child locked in the cellar only knew it by the smell and sounds that reached her place. This is the Omelas Le Guin told us about over seventy years ago. Today, none of its joy and fortune is as it used to be. Although it is still a very prosperous land, vegetation had devoured Omelas by 2051 and the ones who stayed had to learn to live in a completely new land.
As I walked up the town hall square at the center of Omelas, I found my second stop: the house with the storeroom where the child used to be locked. At the site where the house was, there are many cherry trees in full blossom among weeds. The trees in a white and pale pink spread down the road in a line that feels infinite. The view was striking. As a transducer, I have never entangled and interpreted the sentience of such beautiful trees. I laid on the floor and I transduced from the rhythm of the roots of the cherry trees growing underground. The child in the cellar grew into a woman. Custodians kept her and brought her food and water, sometimes they also superficially cleaned the floor of feces. Those were their general tasks. But as soon as the child grew into a woman, some custodians got closer to her. They gave her clothes and period pads, also books to learn to write and read. These were kept hidden among the tools in the storeroom because not all the custodians saw her confinement as inhumane, and they would have interpreted these improvements as a threat to their own well-being.
I suspect that there must have been indifferent keepers, for they raped the woman at least three times if I count her known children. Her voice was gone since she realized that no one would listen to her calls for help. She kept out of sight from the eyes that fed her and nobody knew what she looked like. Neither did anyone try to communicate with her. The custodians always thought they were the only ones that could open the door to her cellar. But when her children could walk, they took control of their own key to the door. They sneaked out at night and collected food from the trash, stole seeds from gardens, fruits from public trees, flowers from the coast, and whatever they considered edible or useful.
I call the infants of the woman Omelas’ Children. They transformed the town at night and slept during the day. They did not have a plan except to survive and tell the story of their mother. The night seemed the safest time of the day to leave the cellar. They did not want to test what kind of risk would have been entailed in being seen by Omelas’ inhabitants. They were gleaners and burglars, but mostly seeders. They spent their time awake fertilizing soil and growing all kinds of plants around Omelas. They used uncommon places to cultivate them, from patches of the earth not covered by the pavement to the gap left by a missing tile on the sidewalk. This included the small pieces of land between the end of a garden and the next one, and even between a house and the beginning of the road. They did not know about private property, but they knew the ground, weeds, and wildflowers.
Omelas’ Children planted seeds across the city and changed Omelas’ economy radically.
Throughout the years, trees and vegetables grew between private gardens of different neighbors, forcing them to share their harvest. Omelas had an excess of vegetables and fruits. There were plenty of tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, pumpkin, and carrots to feed a city three times bigger than Omelas. Lemon, orange, apple, cherry, and almond trees took root in the streets, and some of them closed down to pedestrians because of the uncontrollable growth of vegetation. But Omelas’ inhabitants adapted to the new flora and exploited it as far as they could. They organized themselves in groups of gardeners to collect and preserve the vegetation. Also, they sold their harvest to neighboring towns and in the Farmer’s Market.
My last stop was the green meadow on the opposite side of Omelas’ bay. By then I had traveled all the natural paths that are still accessible to humans. I saw some people walking past, but they ignored me because they know I am a foreigner. Even though Omelas’ citizens denied the story of the woman in the cellar, they are ashamed. They are very defensive towards outsiders who ask about the cellar or the woman and her children. I believe that their unique way of living has shaped their unsympathetic character. Omelas is a self-sufficient organism composed by the entanglement of plants and humans, they are independent from the rest of the earth. They live without human-made architectures or technologies. They build their houses and tools with the biotechnologies they have created in cooperation with the vegetable world. I had to learn the art of transduction to understand vegetation, but I am sure that Omelas’ citizens use it daily to communicate with their environment. They probably have a very refined multi-sensorial capacity to perceive and send information to Omelas’ flora.
I am confused about how Omelas transformed radically after Le Guin’s story. The inhabitants of this magical city did not consciously choose to collaborate with plants because of environmental reasons. Omelas’ Children forced and urged them. They ended up transforming the region of the town, but Omelas’ Children started out with the need to survive in a city where they did not officially exist. They had no birth certificate, passport, or education. No one knew that the woman in the cellar had children. They had nowhere else to go. Living in kinship with the plant world was their best option to survive. Omelas’ Children changed the geology of this part of the world so they could eat every day.
I learned more about Omelas’ Children on my way out of the town where bee orchids grew by the road near the meadow. They were yellow and violet. Altogether, they looked like a psychedelic cloud that I tasted and transduced from the other side of the road. Omelas’ Children planted the bee orchids to honor the death of their mother and the vegetable world. I don’t know if the mother ever left the cellar but for sure she stayed in Omelas and encouraged her children to live and learn from vegetation. They made kin with the plants by discovering and adapting to each other’s modes of sensing, perceiving and communicating. That is why vegetation carries their story. It is not a coincidence that Omelas’ Children opted for bee orchids as the symbol that best represents the power of plants to store information that otherwise would perish. As xkcd interpreted in the cartoon below, the shape of the bee orchid tells the story of the extinct bee. The bee orchid is “an idea of what the female bee looked like to the male bee… as interpreted by a plant… the only memory of the bee is a painting by a dying flower.” The bee orchids that grew in Omelas are a symbol of the memory of Omelas’ Children and their mother.
The ones who stayed in Omelas lived in a symbiotic relationship with strangers: first with the woman and her children, and after with the vegetable world. This form of living turned Omelas into an ever-expanding forest that became the first area of the Planthropocene epoch. The relationship between the child locked in the cellar room and Omelas’ inhabitants was an unfair one. The new entanglement between Omelas’ Children and the ones who stayed in Omelas was a relationship of intimacy that evolved in a new geography of living creatures. Like how bacterias transform and depend on the bodies they inhabit, Omelas’ Children metamorphosed and relied upon Omelas. They used vegetation as their canvas to keep alive their mother and her story. What other stories Omelas’ flora store in its roots, flowers, and branches are still to be transduced.
This sci-fi essay is inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973). Donna Haraway’s thoughts on “making kin” in her book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016). And the extraordinary research of Natasha Myers who coined the concepts of Planthroposcene (2016) and transduction. Her text Anthropologist as Transducer in a Field of Affects (2020) was especially relevant to my research. This text was recently published in Knowings and Knots: Methodologies and Ecologies of Research-creation, ed. by Natalie Loveless, University of Alberta Press.
Helena Grande is a writer and curator. She works at the intersection of fiction, poetry, and scientific
research. She is the author of the flash fiction collection Speech Choke (Hocus Bogus Publishing, 2020).
Her stories have appeared in the anthology book DW Cities Amsterdam (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2020),
edited by Nadia de Vries.