Filthy Germinators (updated)

they stink, but they're here to help.

When the oaks, the sweetgums, the cherrys, the maples, and even the chestnuts started to grow strong in the street, Pop began to complain about the air.

"Gets in my throat" he'd say, "tastes like dirt."

Pop would say it was the spores, or some little invisible critters coming out of the trees but no doctor could ever explain what it was that was so distasteful to him. For Pop’s entire life, the only air he had ever really known was filled with particulates, chemical fumes, exhaust—the sort of air that comes from a tailpipe. Clean air—air that was filled with life anyways, was invasive and wrong, so far as he was concerned.

"I'd rather breathe in something dead and artificial than something that squirms and wriggles and might even have a mind of its own!" he'd growl and then would proceed to spin some yarn about the sensory-pleasures of gasoline. For which he seemed to have a genuine affection. Before the pandemic, Pop’s feelings about industrial air and the many engines that produced it, were shared by the majority of the people in this city.

But when the pandemic struck it had made air, so long taken for granted, a conduit of death. Life expectancy sharply declined and after three years of suffering, the city could no longer deny the violence of the manufactured air and the ways in which it exasperated the virus. For me, barely an adult, the air I breathed became a constant reminder that the young were bound for a short and a brutal future. If there was to be a future at all. For once the right to health was lost, and indeed the right to air that wouldn’t likely kill you, the rights to a proper habitat would quickly followed.

It was amid all of this hopelessness that the germinators arrived in the city. Not grandly, nor quickly, but slowly they emerged from the cracks in the pavement.

They weren’t popular in the beginning, and even today—a decade on—the germinators continue to be criticized by the nation’s leading industrialists:

"we once lived in an era of engineering marvels.” They say, “elevated road systems 16 lanes wide, skyscrapers and all manner of megaprojects that elevated this country above god himself! We made the Earth better for us. And now, we’ve traded it all for what? A light touch and an android gardener? Sure, we need to be more sustainable who’d disagree with that? But we should not be looking to the dirt on the ground for answers, but up! To the heavens, to better technology and bigger supply chains to disperse it. That’s how we whip these so-called ecosystem problems into shape.”

Needless to say, Pop concurs. The nostalgia for that age of industrial america is well-disseminated. And he’s happy to jump on board any s campaigns to undermine the presence of the germinators. In fact, he still sends me emails with articles about the allegedly sinister programs that have been coded into the germinators. “You really think they’re just there to watch over the birds and flowers? Come on now! Be real. The city wouldn’t let them hang around if it wasn’t giving them more power somehow.”

But the germinators are hardly androids. Most twenty-first century kitchen appliances have a more sophisticated 'brain' than the germinators do—which are more akin to a basic calculator, or even a willful abacus, when it comes to complicated mathematics or modeling. The germinators are actually pretty stupid—the city, couldn’t afford the rare earth elements required to make them smart that’s for sure. But their basic OS is part of their brilliance. Germinators, for purely functional reasons, are more like trees and fungi in their thinking and less like any animal thinker. If you have one germinator, it won't do much. It would be like a tree planted alone, on an island, surrounded by concrete with roads on all sides. Its life cycle would be brief and uneventful.

Yet as a system of growers that communicate with one another, the germinators thrive. Most of the data they store is kept long term, typically holding on to information about the species growing in their region for no longer than the 4-season cycle. They mostly operate upon signals that they send to each other—through their shared network the germinators signal to each other about the climate, earth conditions, moisture levels, threats, population sizes, and anomalies that may impact the many species in their little localities. They don't even have a camera, only a primitive light sensor.

Plus they are off a lot of the time, running off only a bit of solar power that they rarely need to store. They aren't perfect however—they break down, get confused, sometimes there are chaotic factors that harm the environment where they work but luckily they are incredibly resilient, easy to repair and there are a whole lot of us people around to help them out if necessary. It is still a city after all. And while we all continue to suffer the brutal residual infrastructures of the early 21st century. The living beings, in collaboration with the the germinators are slowly beginning to dismantle that city that was once so well designed to snuff out the potential for life. But there is a long way to go still.


The germinator system was installed through a guerrilla operation. Installed by a pack of disgruntled ecologists and designers who went by the name of LICHEN. The would-be troublemakers managed to install them in some of the greener, more manicured landscapes of the city. The uptown neighborhoods—where the streets, parks, sidewalks, gates, fences, and luxury apartments are paved with silicon and petroleum—were the most difficult to access, but eventually so many germinators were moving about the city that the clean cut lawns and hedges began to become overgrown and nearly impossible to handle with anything less than a constant and daily stream of herbicide. Which indeed was deployed, but as was to be expected, it nearly poisoned a large portion of the city’s drinking water, and the EPA reluctantly stepped into stop the extremely toxic landscaping efforts..

This provided a small window of opportunity for the ecosystem to establish a foothold in the city. And most species were willing, if not eager to find ways to root in the city’s then-scarce open spaces. As LICHEN had expected, the ecosystem wanted to exist, wanted to flourish, and it was just waiting for some ways around the barriers on barriers on barriers that were actively deterring it from doing so.

When Pop heard about this whole underground operation on his favorite media-website he was livid. Scandalized by the idea that a group of “lawless vandals” would deface the estates of those well-off industrialists, tech-lords, VC’s, drillers, bankers, legal capitalists and taken aback by the idea that anybody would support the criminals. Which, a great many frustrated citizens did.

"They should count their blessings." said Pop, “Those ingrates… They should be begging whatever trees they worship that the fine, hardworking people living in those neighborhood—the people who likely employ those idiots—don't cart them off to prison! They do deserve to rot. And whats this about the EPA intervening? The EPA is not part of the constitution… That’s a violation of those fine property-owner’s right to land. Land they practically built with their sweat, blood, and hard-earned money.”

This was what social media had told him, almost word for word, but like most things read on social media none of it was based in reality. They did not employ those, unemployed scientists and designers. The bankers and industrialists of the neighborhood did in fact try and succeeded in carting many of them off to prison (even labelled them terrorists which was well publicized). The land they were living on was not built by them at all but by mostly underpaid, laborers and in fact it had been more polluted and warped in the last half century (the time of the neighborhood in question's wealth) than ever before previously. The only thing deeply-rooted in the city’s uptown neighborhood is in fact its wealth.

I suppose my Pop might have felt differently about it all if he knew that I was one of those “idiots”. Or maybe he wouldn’t. It didn’t matter though, because I was never prosecuted, never caught even, and so I never brought it up. He was never really willing to dig deeper than the claims that emanated from his barking ipad.

Germ Design

Despite the criminal charges, and the labelling of LICHEN as a terrorist organization, the germinators won public support after some years. More radical politicians started backing the little automata, in an attempt to make up for the government’s gross negligence towards the life-systems of the city. A neglect that in no small part had for the last decade resulted in chronic food shortages and environmental deterioration and a never ending cycle of climate catastrophes. The germinators were thus given official permission to operate in neighborhoods all over the city. Pop wasn’t much interested in doing anything about it, but to my dismay, he sure did enjoy complaining.

“they’re filthy—a real eyesore.” He’d whine whenever I took him out for a walk around the block. “Look you want to grow more flowers or whatever? Fine, I don’t care. But can’t they make the germs look nice at least? Make them shine? Like a cars, you know? Cars are beautiful. Sure you use them to get around, but they have a look, a character. They shine, have a bright solid metallic colors. These germs, they’re all different and weird looking. They’re made of that weird gooey organic bullshit, they’re all different shapes—they look like they’ve been vandalized! And they’re covered in dirt and insects. Who wants to look at that? When I take a walk I want the neighborhood to look nice, like a nice picture. Plus the plants are getting all wild and out of order. Why don’t they trim them? Make them nice shapes, like a proper garden. Nobody wants to see these gross robots. It ruins the atmosphere of the neighborhood, surprised my property value hasn’t gone down. Just look–look at that germ there, it has literal dirt on them. I guess that’s why those hippies like them.” He’d say.

While I can’t speak to his tone or taste, his description of the germinators isn’t too far off. The germinators are all different, and while Pop suggests this robs them of character, I'd say it endows them with it. They do tend to have some dirt on them. The aesthetic of the germinator was and remains a contentious issue. Many, many people wanted the germinators to be uniform. Sleek. Clean. Shiny with a nice reflective glass surface and a screen interface on them like our phones and refrigerators and cars of course This was fraught from the beginning though. Firstly, it was always understood that the germinators would be working in the earth, on the ground, outside, and animals would be crawling on them and they would be rained on, shit on, and get covered in pollen and fungi. Making them sleek and giving them a screen would require extensive regular cleaning, and there was little interest in subsidizing such services.The calls for uniform, modernist aesthetics were overruled by suggestions from local city planners that the neighborhood decide on the aesthetic. Built with an easily-moldable biomaterial, the appearance of the germinators could easily be customized.

Long story short, people make them their own. Even if the germinators were all uniform in their initial designs. Some neighborhoods with high property values did try to make them sleek and modern, and kept them very clean to try and keep with the aesthetic of new land developments. But most neighborhoods chose to make their germinators completely unique in appearance. Some appear like uncanny scarecrows, while anthropomorphizing has generally been discouraged, the scarecrow germinators give the kind association of an agrarian community, that many seem to like (honestly, it is likely the closest thing to “pastoral" life that exists anymore). But they are not human size, they are scarecrows that stand as tall as a fully grown Labrador. Others have made the germinators into animals. You may walk by a neighborhood and see tiny lion-shaped germinators moving about, or as monkeys hanging in the trees. They aren’t sophisticated in their morphology, but they are unique.

And yes—they tend to be a bit dirty, but what do you expect?

City of The Living, Dead

For Pop, the germinators were always an inconvenience but they became a threat once they—as he puts it, “stole the bonneville!”

Pop drove, and had in fact spent a large portion of his waking life inside of, an old Pontiac Bonneville. It was heavy, loud, it stank of gasoline, the air conditioning had long been shot and took half an hour to heat up in the winter. It was painful to be in, and around that car, but it was nonetheless one of Pop’s most consistent habitats throughout his life. So needless to say, when he had restricted access to it, he took it personally. But of course the germinators had nothing to do with the phasing out of cars in the city, as I often have told him. There are still plenty of cars around (it just that with taxes on spaces and the use of private vehicles very few actually use them). In Pop’s neighborhood, and in a lot of cities now, the supremacy of automobile lanes has been diminished. The germinators were not responsible for the removal of automobile lanes but sure enough were made to represent the many infrastructure changes that led to their removal. I mean, the germinators aren’t even smart enough to comprehend a Dr. Seuss book let alone propose and pass a major urban planning scheme. No it turned out that the roads were not only one of the main contributing factors to the toxic air of the city, but the space they occupied made walking in the city extremely dangerous, and paradoxically drove up rent prices. To deter the cars, non-combustion transportation both sub- and superterranean—made private cars a useless and absurd expenditure. Primary sections of the city, which were long dominated by cars, were cleared and the void was filled with public space and urban meadows, wetlands, and forests that the germinators were integral in establishing.

As cars were cleared away, so too were the countless air, soil, and water pollutants that cars had been leaking into the earth for the past century—in these clean open spaces the germinators helped to create a real boon in the ecosystem of most neighborhoods. Due to the rise in pollinating insects, many neighborhoods were able to start cultivating an auxiliary supply of food right there in what was once understood to be the street. In fact, it was preferred, as cultivating fruits and vegetables in closed off gardens were often infiltrated by rats and other vermin. While growing the vegetables out in the open was advantageous due to the urban-savvy Red-tailed hawk, and a selection of other predatory birds that had adapted nesting habits to the old skyscrapers. An abundant population of small, domestic dogs also were also instrumental in fending off rodents at the street level. The rodents while prodigious, were fairly well satiated by the increased vegetation in many quarters of city, and thus had little interest in assailing crops that’d put them at risk of being tracked down by terriers or raptors.

As a result, more communities were interested in cultivating more food themselves, especially as food supply chains faltered so dramatically throughout the pandemic and never fully recovered to where they once were. Yet the still powerful superstores didn’t like that at all. And so poured millions into the “Keep America’s Food Clean” campaign that targeted the germinators saying that— the “germ bots”— as they liked to called them, were limiting people’s freedom by cutting off access to food stores, thus forcing people to eat unregulated and unclean food that grew in the filthy city ground.

“Hey look! Come and listen to this!” Pop would say when those commercials were running or when an ad would pop-up in his feed. “Didn’t I say the germs were bad news? Its just the beginning, soon those germs will be asking for rights, and taking away ours in the process! I’m not giving up the Bonneville, that’s for sure!”

While Pop had no doubt loved the Bonneville, since he retired he rarely drove it anywhere. Getting pretty much everything he needed within the few block range of his home, as was the case with a lot of the city’s residents. Mostly Pop drove the Bonneville around the block just to “keep the engine warm.”

Media-eclipsing lobbying efforts, and every manner of PR campaign was deployed by oil companies and the superstores and real estate developers to trash the germinators. And nothing could survive a PR blitz that was so funded. Which meant that a lot of road development and many streets remained unchanged in our business-minded city, but not Pop’s. Enough of us were unmoved by the absurd anti-germinator campaigns and so appealed to the city to have lanes minimized significantly to facilitate bikes, and other small vehicles, but ultimately to expand public space for vegetation, naturally forming waterways and community meadows.

The irony is that Pop still has the Bonneville. he never had to get rid of it, and he can still drive it if he wants. Just not on his street. Though Pop can’t really afford to move anywhere else now, even if he wanted to, but just as it was before the germinators came, there isn’t really any need. Plus he’s getting on in years, he just doesn’t have the energy to get the car going anymore. “Those filthy germs have ruined the one thing that brought me joy.” He often likes to remind me.

The City of Germs

There are a lot of germinators in the city now, but hardly enough to care for how massive the city has sprawled out to be. The patchwork of living and brutally lifeless neighborhoods has made the city Frankenstein-esque. A body, that is only partially reanimated with life, and try as it might, fails to find ecological harmony. I love the germinators, but as a former member of the now defunct LICHEN, I see the whole project as a stunning failure. While we did garner some support from the left wing politicians, it was never enough to pass the legislation to get the germinators throughout the entire city. The city is better but only just, as species continue to disappear and various quarters of the city become less and less habitable. What we have now is what we needed the city to be 20 years ago. What’s clear is the we really dropped the ball on the PR front.

But luckily Pop’s neighborhood is well managed by a germinator, though he will never admit it. Many of Pop’s neighborhood friends work the urban meadows, collecting crops, feeding the plants, maintaining the neighborhood—and helping out the germinators. Nobody is obliged to work in the meadows but nobody is barred from it either. Long before the germinators came around, the city was struggling with a growing elderly population and since the very beginning of the germinator program, incentives were offered to elderly people to work with the germinators. To everyone’s surprise they took to it quickly. It seems many people were afraid that the older population would be resistant to the new tech, but as there was such a low barrier for entry to working with the simple germinator interface. There was hardly any resistance.

The program offered free education in germinator maintenance, horticulture, zoology, resource management, electrical engineering, ornithology, forestry, permaculture, seed management, resiliency, fermentation, aquaponics, carpentry, fluid-dynamics, thermodynamics, physics, botany, entomology, ecology, biology, and more. If volunteers spent a certain number of hours ‘working the meadow,’ then they were entitled to some money even. Many of the people working were free to take any grown food they needed for themselves or family.

Most have not been replaced ever but that isn’t to say that they haven’t changed with age. After a few years of being in the city, the germinators that are out there have started to take on their own character. By now they are all so different and diverse that even calling them all germinators feels a bit strange. Most streets, neighborhoods have given their’s names, (which I personally feel, anthropomorphizes them a bit too much),, the people persist with names like “Seymour”, “Queen B”, “Diane” “Mel” “Mister Humnbolt!”, “Cinnamon”, “Sweet pea”, “Helen”, “Bolívar”,, “Bacchus” “pup” “Jefferson” “Einstein” “54th street” “Han Solo” “Confucius” “Yellowstone” “Greta”, “Venus” “Omega”, etc. etc. I mean it’d take forever to name them all, the point is there is really all manner of different names.

As countless varieties of shrubs and trees have taken root and become inalienable parts of the living city, so to have the germinators. They have come to define a growing part of the urban habitat, and almost every resident has a relationship with them of some sort. As the community is given plenty of control over the design of the germinators, they’ve become tailored to the fabric of the city’s social-ecological infrastructure.

Thanks to the help of some industrious citizens there have been innovations with the germinator technology at the meadow level—that have spread to other germinators. But there is still variability in their success, for they are always beholden to the ever-chaotic climate systems and biological variations. Even at their worst, I’d say they are still unshakable stewards of urban plants, animals, and in a way, even people. With the recent funding to establish a Germinator Pool—an organization of city scientists including ecologists, mycologists, ornithologists, botanists, arborists, foresters, climatologists, zoologists, ichthyologists, batrachologist, herpetologists, hydrologists, virologists and others that will be available to help optimize germinator performance algorithms. There is sure to be improvements to the system made soon.

Pop is older now. He remains stubborn. He will never go into what he still calls the “street”. He still complains all the time about the germinators, about the “messy and ugly” looking gardens that fill the street outside of his house. Despite this he spends a lot of his time on the front stoop now, in an old lawn chair. He insists that the absence of loud road construction and the smell of garbage that used to dominate the neighborhood, that he preferred how it used to be. “It’s too quiet. The noise was a comfort, but now its creepy. It makes me uncomfortable.” He says as he looks disdainfully down at his neighborhood’s germinator that goes by the name of Don Fabrizio and has been made to look like a lion. Don Fabrizio is quietly examining a a vine of grapes at the foot of Pop’s stoop.

The pandemic that had spurred the implementation of germinators, is not fully gone still. Even after a decade. While there has long been a vaccine, access to it is not comprehensive to stamp it out completely, and there are still large portions of the city where air quality is unhealthy if not dangerous.

Pop hates the germinators, and will for the rest of his days, but to my mind there is little doubt that he and I, would have much hope living in this city if it wasn’t for Don Fabrizio and the many people and creatures he binds together in our neighborhood.