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The Prairie School

It’s all … lines.

Penny lowers her sketchbook and looks at her campfire. It flickers, catching the breeze. She looks back at her sketchbook. Lines. Lots of lines. A visual emphasis on the horizontal, intercut with organic motifs. Plans for off-grid, solar-powered tiny homes. Built from an architect’s perspective. She flips through old pages, old sketches. Lines, but no connections. The designs aren’t coming together, which seems fitting because what is? Paths, roads, options, choices, lines. Diverging. Not uniting. No clear direction.  

Penny drops her sketchbook in the dirt and gets up to check her bike. Chains are tight. Tires don’t show any signs of wearing. Did she remember to charge the repair kit? Yes, the photovoltaic cells kept reflecting in her eyes while she pedalled. It was sunny today, so everything should be charged. Except for the food printer. She made microalgae dumplings for her hobo stew. Took half the evening to print those. She can recharge it during the ride tomorrow.

Penny leans on her sturdy gravel bicycle. Her eyes trace rippling waves of prairie grass until they fade beyond the light of the fire. In the darkness, not even the horizon can suggest the limits of the plains. Tomorrow, she’ll keep looking. Searching. Penny pulls her sleeping bag off her bike and slips into her tent.

The ride is smooth, despite washboard bumps in the dirt road. The bike’s shocks perform their function well. Penny is almost jealous. Things have such defined purposes. They simply are what they are, built well to do what they do. Or at least, they should be. The designer must be up to the task. She must be up to the task. Tension twists in her shoulders.

Slight downhill. Penny takes a slow breath as the road declines, focusing on the whirring of tires. She could’ve used a mag-lev cycler but she likes the old-school simplicity of the gravel bike, the hum of the spokes. The thoughts clanging around her mind break their confines and drift, floating like clouds. They roll into larger forms, no walls or towers or distractions. Nothing rises to impede them. Nothing gets in their way. Out here, there’s enough space for them to untangle and disperse, billowing and rumbling with latent energy. Her design isn’t finished yet. There’s something still missing. Penny scans the horizon. It’s out there, somewhere. A tightness releases from Penny’s chest. Beneath her, tires whir.

Penny bikes, and bikes, and bikes. Dozens of miles. Dozens of sketches. At night she sets up her tent, unfolds the portable food printer and fills it with microalgae solvent or beetroot powder and rainwater. The smart goggles help identify wild plants and herbs to eat. Farmers’ markets provide additional nourishment, not to mention the odd roadside diner. People ask about her trip, her destination. She says she doesn’t have one. She’s just here to explore the prairie, to learn from it. Cycling across the Great Plains. Backroads only. Where all those soulless, self-driving vehicles won’t go.

Penny’s mind winds as the road twists and turns. There are new discoveries beyond each bend. Her chest heaves during slogs up gravelly hills, problems churning into solutions through forceful cranks of the pedals. Jolts of adrenaline and inspiration punctuate the race back downhill. The journey becomes a dance, a meditation.

The firm wants green solutions. Solar panels. Energy-efficient food printers. Large, immobile edifices. Conventional. Nothing truly radical. Only adaptability rises to meet uncertainty. If Penny wants the partners to consider her proposal, the design must be perfect. Minimalist nomadism provides greater climate resilience. Lower impact. She’s miniaturized the tech herself, proving that portable printers and generators can sustain a life in motion. Motion. Momentum. She needs to keep moving. Forward. She’s restless at the firm. Directionless. Stuck. She just needs to keep going. Keep pedalling. Just one perfect design. Learn from the prairie. Architecture should inhabit place. Lines. Horizontal lines. Space. Ornamentation is a distraction. Simple motifs. Lines. Divergent, coming together. Lines, lots of

—gravel skids under her tires as she squeezes her brakes. An alarm flashes in her smart goggles. It mirrors the sign on the fence blocking the road. Private Property. No Trespassing.

Penny follows the fence, grimacing. Half a day wasted, trying to find a way around it. The fence persists, unyielding. Tumbleweeds shaking against the barbed wire remind her of fish caught in a net. The fence looms, seeming to draw closer, constricting, squeezing like a python of twisted, pointed steel. Penny’s pace increases. Each pump of the pedal comes faster than the last, until she is racing the fence, feet pumping, heart pounding. She needs to escape, beyond its stifling restrictions, beyond limitations, conventions, traditions, lack of vision. She cannot handle another roadblock, another detour, another dead end. She feels the fence chasing her. Closing in. Closer. It is nearly upon her. If she can just get around it, she’s certain the answers are there, on the other side. Out there, in that open, unrestricted expanse of grassland. It’s so close. If she can just get to it.

Penny pedals and pedals and pedals and pedals and pedals and pedals and then skids to a halt and screams, throws her helmet, tears pouring down her cheeks. The partners said no. And no. And no. So many times. Stay in your lane. Head down. She doesn’t know where she’s going. Where her life is taking her. Her career. How high she can climb that ladder.

Penny gasps through sobs. She can’t go any further today. Shoulders drooping, resigned, she sets up her tent, her campfire, food printer, water condenser. She sits on the ground. Her sketchbook lies next to her, unopened. Maybe she’ll just go to sleep. Penny looks at her tent. She looks at the fence. She looks at her tent.

Homes were not always things that blocked off the natural world. Outdoor and indoor, not antonyms. Not fences. Elements of the same. Sides of a coin in constant rotation. In. Out. Seamless. She can’t just adjust the scale of architecture. She needs to rebel against the very concept of sedentary architecture itself.

Penny opens to a new page, and begins to sketch new lines.

An alarm flashes in the goggles. No Trespassing. Penny opens her backpack, removes the repair kit. There are still lessons she needs to learn from the prairie. She cannot master these teachings if she accepts restriction. Lines fill her mind. Once disparate, they are finding order, harmony, direction.

Architecture should inhabit place. Place should inhabit architecture. The partners will never approve her project. She’ll do it on her own. Her own firm. Her own movement. Innovation is rebellious. The prairie is rebellious. It doesn’t care about property or jurisdiction or fences. The prairie storms and blows and sweeps and rises and turns, compelled by its own sense of chaos, its own order, its own logic. She was never going to achieve this without risk. Rebellious, defiant, risk. This will challenge conventions, laws, everything. Resilience is radical; transience, revolutionary. Property is conventional. Antiquated. Inequitable. Intolerable. The lines on the horizon and lines in her mind converge. The alarm flashes in her heads-up display. No Trespassing. Penny removes her goggles. She stares at the fence. There’s one line that’s out of place. She opens the repair kit and withdraws the chain cutter.

Some lines need to be crossed.

Writer of solarpunk/nomadpunk, history adjunct, dad of twins... former HPLD Writer in Residence.