The Great Clean, a fictional undertaking to suspend all life on Earth in a deep and dreamless sleep while billions upon billions of “all-purpose” nanobots and maintenance drones scoured the planet satisfying my burgeoning OCD and desire for control, was born one hot week in the mid-80s. I was 19.
I spent eight years on an orbiting penal colony. Obviously, I did something wrong to deserve my punishment, but my crimes are not important here. What really matters is that during this era, I was typically sentenced to one of four kinds of manual labor; whitewashing fences, scrubbing walls, shoveling cowshit, or mowing lawns. I didn’t see any of these as punishment. Not really. But mowing lawns was my favorite, my Bre’r Rabbit, as it meant spending immense spans of time by myself. I was good at that. I didn’t say much. Always had my nose in a book.
When it came to mowing lawns, I had it down to a science. First, I’d first select the best of the three available mowers. Typically, they were put away clogged with dried grass and traces of spilled oil, so I’d hose them down and wipe them off. (A clean machine is a happy machine.) Then I’d fill a spare gas tank, a gallon jug of water, and gather a small pile of tapes and fresh AA batteries. With the containers balanced on or haphazardly lashed to the lawn mower, I’d set out for the farthest point on the horizon, as directed, as though bound for some grand adventure — which inexplicably, required a sharp, spinning blade.
Mowing a massive field in the height of summer can be a meditative experience. There’s a sense of separation and isolation, something that’s as much a part of me as is my blood type. There’s the droning of the engine, rising and falling in direct proportion to the Doppler shift around those hard-to-reach areas — pull the mower toward me, push it away, pull, push.
Sometimes I’d hum until the frequencies matched, taking delight in the splash of the intermingling waves of sound. (*I still do this with a vacuum cleaner. I don’t give a fuck if you think I’m crazy.) There’s the pleasantly affirming order of the songs on the album, as dictated by studio technicians far, far away. There’s the future-clean scent of gasoline, and the dense organic huff of freshly murdered grass, all of which combined as a kind of incense to enhance my already laser-like focus. All was nothing and nothing was all that mattered, except keeping that front left or right wheel perfectly aligned with the previous dark green mark.
The best grass is dense from a recent rain, when all things are obvious and revealed. I resented mowing over dead grass or scrub for fear that I’d lose sight of the lines, spoiling the end result. It may have been a punishment, but I took pride in my work.
A freshly mowed lawn is a beautiful thing. Covering rolling hills in a perfect progression of lines approximately 24” wide is akin to conjuring Zen from a sand box. You trudge on and on, bent slightly at the waist, legs steadily pumping, slogging toward the endless horizon like Conan on the Wheel of Pain as your shoes turn irrevocably green from wading through fresh chlorophyll, as your bare legs are covered in shredded plant life, as your socks clog with grass, as your hands become numb and itchy from constant vibration, as your neck becomes red and painful despite the gallons of sunblock you’ve slathered on. All the while, the sun beats down, boiling the very air around you. Under such rich sensory conditions, the mind begins to drift.
I’ve built time machines in this state. I once built a pump-action shotgun that fired an activated cloud of electrolytes, but I couldn’t devise a way to make the cloud stay on target. Another time, I wrote the rules of combat for a parallel world in which plant life was self-aware and therefore hostile. Growth cycles skyrocketed. Seeds that normally took weeks to bud were fully sprouting within hours. The population, fresh out of chemicals was forced to do combat with weed eaters, machetes and pruning sheers in order to hang on to their ever-decreasing patches of real estate. Vegetarians were seen as spies and cast outside the city walls. Fields of green grass would rise to a height of five feet in less than thirty minutes, completely engulfing the terrified livestock. They feared trees, and doubted oxygen.
I’ve always had a tendency for order. I wallow in it. It cakes my skin, mats my hair, and permeates my life. When I stand in one spot long enough, I will adjust objects in my immediate vicinity to suit. Waiting for coffee. Waiting to buy groceries. Preparing to leave my desk for a week. Preparing to leave my apartment for a week. Adjusting objects to create an aura of harmony is just something I do. My car is always immaculate. I am careful to mention this tendency around new acquaintances; people assume that I plan to visit their homes and judge them for their squalor. This is not the case.
Marching now beneath the sun, my imagination flowing freely between concepts, there came the feeling like the first peak of an acid trip, the first hill of a roller coaster, like being on a beach at the front end of a tidal wave and knowing that something large was about to happen. The pieces fell together and suddenly I realized an impossibly far-fetched plan to “repair” the entire world.
But it would mean the temporary suspension of free will.
First, I’d need everyone out of the way. For his or her own safety, every living being would enter a state of profound hibernation. But not all at once. Obviously I didn’t want pilots crashing planes, or people driving cars into trees, or birds falling from the sky. When each succumbed to exhaustion, they would simply curl up and sleep as they would naturally. Only for much, much longer. And while they slumbered, everything would be made new. Shuffled, re-categorized, maintained, repaired, removed, or renovated to the nth degree.
Example: the trillions upon trillions of ‘bots I’d set loose upon the Earth would replace every screw on the outer marker light of a decades-old airfield in the middle of the desert, ensuring the new screw pattern was uniform, that the gasket was brand new and perfectly free of blemish, and the application of the reflective tape was exact. The bulb would be changed, the manufacturers name aligning with the pattern of the screws, further based upon the placement of the heavens above. This level of absurdist detail would be repeated into infinity, rippling around the Earth in tiny waves until they collided on the far side, mirroring absolutely everywhere. The size and complexity, the sheer possibility of the idea began to settle in.
On and on I marched to the drone of the engine; to the dull roar of face-melting rock music in my ears, to the scent of gas and the weight of the sustained nuclear reaction many millions of miles distant. A dumb, horny teenager who liked books about spaceships and loud rock music, plotting to change the world.
Absolutely nothing would escape my reach.
All roads, every road, would be need to be replaced with smart surfaces capable of withstanding the expansion and contraction of extreme weather conditions despite their geographic location. Dirt roads would be leveled and filled in; every pothole, everywhere, would be filled. The grass along the edges would be edged and reseeded. Every crack, every symbol of entropy and decay, would be filled or seamlessly repaired. Every fading line, everywhere, would be freshly repainted. The world would be made showroom new. Every window made spotless. Every surface dusted. Every walls washed or freshly painted. All worn carpet replaced. All the plants watered. All defective appliances repaired. Empty refrigerators filled. Every hot water tank flushed and refilled. Every fast food kitchen gutted and remodeled for efficiency. Every crooked object straightened.
The scope began to spiral upward, outward.
I’d turn the rusting hulks of old Chevys squatting on the back forty of a North Carolina tobacco field back into iron oxide, back into dust, and back into the earth. I’d completely level the dilapidated buildings and ruined tenements that sat empty, turning over the soil after they’d disappeared to further usher them back into nothingness.
(Wait, what if there was something in the building that might be important?) Okay, after first searching these buildings for unusual objects such as bones —which would then be documented, and their remains identified — the buildings would disappear.
(Wait, what about creating new housing for the homeless?) There would be no more slums. I would replace the world’s shantytowns with durable, weatherproof, plastic shells that came complete with solar panels.
What should I do with the reclaimed land? I would erect immense hydroponic farms, more than capable of producing enough food to feed the world’s population many times over, spacing them out in what I immediately labeled ‘concentric care circles’ so that no one was more than a few miles from a farm or an immense garden. I would remove the immense accumulation of methane around chicken or cattle farms. I removed junk food. I obliterated cigarette factories. I leveled coal plants, erasing them as though they never existed.
(What if there were graves on the land I’d reclaimed?) Every faded and forgotten stone would be lovingly restored, just one more time, complete with fresh flowers. The whole world would take on the appearance of an immense estate, as though tended by an immense army of master landscape architects.
Not a single piece of trash would remain anywhere on the Earth. Not a single speck of chewing gum. Not one goddamned wrapper. Not a single fucking balding tire by the side of the road, anywhere. I would eradicate Styrofoam. I would scrub the sidewalks, the trash cans, the alleys, the loading docks. I would empty every landfill by devising a series of enormous incinerators capable of destroying anything and everything, burning so completely white hot that even drums of the worst toxic sludge would leave behind only a thin carbon powder, suitable for sprinkling over crops.
I would plant millions upon millions of new trees. (I decided I would get carried away planting trees.) I would reseed the barren fields, revitalize the soil, and rotate the crops. All of them.
The more problems I decided to tackle, the more solutions I had to devise.
I would comb every square meter of the jungles and deserts of distant lands, locate the remains of those who had fallen there, and bring them home. I would do what paperwork, puppets and fat cat politicians could — or would not.
I would decode the lost language of the pyramids. I would raise shipwrecks from the ocean floor.
I would dredge every ocean, river, stream, creek and waterway on every land mass around the globe, plumbing the depths and searching every meter for artifacts, bringing them to the surface for other swarms to restore, depositing the finished product crated and documented on the front steps of museums around the world. (The nails spaced evenly, the shipping label flawless.)
I would remove everything unwanted from the seas. Absolutely everything: salvageable remains, decomposed drums of hazardous chemicals, discarded murder weapons. All plastic. All by-products. Everything, everywhere.
I would fix the ozone layer.
The engine ran out of gas, so I took a break. Pounded some water, spat some out. Changed tapes. Filled the mower, resumed.
I tried to envision what the world might look while this was going on, the enormous scale of activity; the sunken ships boiling to the surface, the Earth’s soil being tilled and turned to depths of 15 and 20 feet; forgotten ordinance exploded; old buildings converted to dust, sliding into their grave with but a whisper, the skies black with oxygen scrubbers. A fantastic roar of rebirth and rejuvenation.
I would restore, document, and archive every historical record, organizing every box of photos in every attic in every land, indexing them by a simplified universal code no matter their originating language or culture in order to make them searchable.
I would send every last chemical weapon into the heart of the sun. I would place all the nuclear warheads into reactors. I would shore the abandoned mines. I would replace combustion engines with hybrid versions. I would devise a viable, clean-burning solution for commercial aircraft.
Perfectly. Exactly. I would tear down all the billboards, all the ads.
Then I began to spiral out of control.
I dissolved munitions factories. Playing judge, jury and executioner, I decided to empty the prisons, perishing the admitted murderers and those beyond rehabilitation, wiping the memories of lesser offenders and sending them back onto the streets with no memory of their sentence. I would murder the warlords, the corrupt politicians, the abductors, the molesters and the evil, removing all trace of their existence from any record.
(I stopped short before deciding to look into the hearts of man and thin the population by two-thirds in order to “maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature,” according to the recently erected *Georgia Guidestones.)
And when it was all said and done, when everything was as complete as I could get it, I’d write the following words in hundred-foot letters on the White Cliffs of Dover, across the deserts of the American Southwest, across the great golden beaches of the East Coast, across the frozen Tundra, scratched across the across the chalkboards of every classroom and the main streets of every city and every town around the globe:
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
And then I’d wake the world, and try to look as surprised as anyone else.
Eventually the field was completely mowed. Eventually the mower ran out of gas. Eventually the sun went down. Eventually the focus passed. Eventually the songs ended. Eventually the batteries died.
I was hungry and tired. I thought about food. I tried not to think about girls, but I’d been shoving a gas-powered vibrator around all fucking day, pushing it with my hips when my arms got tired. Instead, I began to wonder how the world would interpret my actions. How long would it take for the scope of the thing to settle in? Imagine the horror, the resulting implications. How long would it take before they noticed the details? Would I inadvertently terrify the population? Would suicides skyrocket? Would they say that God obviously had “strong opinions on certain subjects,” such as the eradication of cigarettes and junk food? Would this cause a rise or fall in religious belief? Would they maintain the order I’d set forth? How would they interpret my warning? Would they rebuild the chemical stockpiles?
Eventually I escaped from that penal colony, never to mow another mile in my life. (Eventually the grass grew back. Eventually someone else had to mow it.)
But eventually, even the idea went away. It still comes back in the Spring when I hear the mowers, when I smell cut grass, and when the sun returns on those first feeble days when you can almost get warm just by standing still.
I still arrange objects to my liking, though.
(*Jesus fucking Christ, no wonder I’m single…)