DeComp: A Composition
Much remains to be revealed about DeComp, because, as you will see later in my account, the very fact of DeComp had a way of drawing people toward it, as surely as carrion draws eagles, but, for now, I simply want to sketch the thing, so the reader can understand something more of our enterprise. Even now, looking back, I can admit that, gruesome as it was, the DeComp plant was also quite fascinating from a theoretical standpoint, brilliant in its way. And its particular brand was perhaps best captured in a slogan that had appeared on all those roadside billboards that had led each and every one of us toward Progress:
DeComp: Not the end. The beginning.
An appropriate translation might be:
DeComp: Capitalizing on death by turning bodies into bubbling sludge.
However, let’s take a step back, and proceed as if without prejudice. If one takes the objective, sanitized view, DeComp was nothing but a large conglomeration of interconnected industrial buildings and storage tanks surrounded by a fortified fence within which men used giant complicated machines to produce a given commodity—a sprawling place where people made stuff. Viewed in blueprint or schematic form, or even from a satellite or plane high above, DeComp probably appeared the model of American ingenuity, with efficient little pluses and minuses plotting various inputs and outputs. The credo of our old world, It’s Just Business, suggests that it doesn’t really matter what the inputs are or, for that matter, even what is produced. By the logic of industry, anything a company makes is good so long as a market exists for it, and it is this outcome, the trading of this commodity in some market, that matters to captains of industry and, apparently, the market for putrefied bodies was getting hot.
What a curious word: matters. Even now, we say it all the time, without thought. But matter, as we commonly understand it, is substance. In history, someone at some point must have been speaking of a rather lofty and abstract concept, like truth, or right and wrong. I imagine a situation where a guy with some modicum of brainpower stumbled upon a village girl getting harassed by a few Roman centurions. He could have walked by and let it be, as perhaps everyone else did, as he had likely done before, but something stopped him in his tracks, like it had actual weight. Whatever it was anchored him there. “This matters,” he may have been overheard sighing in resignation, right before intervening and getting run through with a spear. Yes, whatever ethereal sense had overwhelmed him had suddenly been given substance, weight, heft—matter, his corpse, which must now break down again. All the high-minded concepts of the universe are like this. An idea can’t matter in any abstract sense; what brings it into the realm of mattering is flesh, as with the corporeal body of Christ, or like the tangible assets produced by gasifying zombies. We have to admit that ours was, above all, a physical business, a business of breaking down bodies—from matter to immaterial (un)matter and finally to energy for other bodies to use.
And how did that process work?
I dug up an old copy of Mother Earth News here in this library intended to show small-time farmers how to make biogas fermenters of their very own, using things like grass clippings and silage, manure and chicken feathers, the whole thing very innocent, even quaint:
By constructing a home biogas generator, you can make enough fuel to at least provide your cooking energy. A family with modest daily cooking needs will at a minimum require the output of a warm, well-fed, 200-gallon (27-cubic-foot) generator. This much biogas will allow for about one hour of daily stovetop cooking.
One reads such a thing and imagines bucolic farm cooperatives, eco-Utopias where every input and output is accounted for, where people even pedal bikes to generate a few watts for bulbs that barely keep a community from slipping all the way into the dark age. I have to admit, I believe this is achievable. I think it was always achievable. But I recall what I witnessed when I finally arrived at DeComp, and I realize what our Utopian visionaries were always up against, their humble aspirations of simple cooperative communities satisfied to remain as humble communities always pitted against the avarice of those who looked at biogas generators built for five yokels and thinking Fuck this penny-ante bullshit! Go big or go home! because, as I would soon find out, where it’s schematics may have seemed clean as polished stainless steel, the immaculate ideation of the thing was already corrupted by the horrifying reality of what it actually was: an old-world industrial collection of old silos and gigantic wastewater treatment tanks and pipes and conduits and generators and transformers hauled in from all over the region and cobbled together, all of it coated with the clinging grease and endless funk of human rot, where bodies were fed into the system and churned out as gas and electricity—not just power to the people, but by the people, of the people.
I recall another publication touting the benefits of a number of a biogas producing plants in Uganda and several in Europe that specialized in using slaughterhouse salvage and how, once in my life, that might have revolted me to read about, the very idea of all the endless cattle and pig scraps and slurries and sludges issuing from the abattoirs, getting ground up into usable bits and fermented in huge vats. I was always conservative in my approach to resource use and might have appreciated the cold efficiency of repurposing waste products, but, on the other hand, I was always opposed to industrial agriculture—a real freak in my own time, one who never cared for the more willful sorts of ignorance and understood that the true costs were always just hidden from view, buried in public subsidies, paid for in medical bills years down the line, etc.—and so these images would have haunted me, thousands of pigs and cows in a single town dying every day, having their heads and feet chopped off, their guts cut away, the insides of their muscles sprayed out with high-pressure hoses, all the lights, all the machines running on power generated by the great try-works of industry burning away the methane of their own otherwise useless scraps. To think: all of them butchered by their own light! How much more troubling DeComp, then, that our operations filled dozens of fermenting tanks and desulfurization silos—and knowing what sort of bodies fed these?
I am trying to piece the thing back together in my mind and what I see first is the carnage of bodies but superseding this in my mind is the general tidiness of the operation, the way the roads were nearly graded, the lack of weeds, the polished steel, the smoke coming out the stacks in clean-looking white plumes—and it is only in the juxtaposition of shredded putrefying bodies and that very neatness that one begins to perceive the truly gruesome spirit of the enterprise.
This juxtaposition works on my mind just as the marketing propaganda we used to see on TV. At any one moment, the ads were tidy and neat, the depictions in them beautiful and full of convictions and meaning, and yet, in aggregate, looking back on how readily the American people took to The Collapse, how quickly they regressed to panic and violence and deference to whatever force promised one moment of security, how quickly they abandoned all semblance of their principles the second things got tough, it’s easy to see the spiritual core of all the carefully crafted advertisement was a gaping void where a soul might have otherwise been, a wormhole leading right here to this very place, where the bodies of old America were being ground into pulp and paste.
Sorry. I was getting a little carried away there. Let me take a step back and try to be more specific, delve a bit more into some of the more technical specifications so my reader can better comprehend the magnitude of DeComp.
The whole campus was probably somewhere between three hundred and five hundred acres, though it’s hard to say for sure because some parts dipped down over a hill out of sight and perhaps also because I grew up in the city, in Queen Anne, and have a skewed understanding of what constitutes “a large parcel.” Various sections of the land, or pads, had been leveled off and scraped clear of vegetation, and it was fairly easy to see the basic layout of the compound was such that certain portions were on higher pads so that the various pipes and chutes and sluice boxes could better utilize gravity to feed materials from one piece to another. The highest things you could see were the stacks and silos, these looming above all else, even though the large buildings and columns actually sat on lower pads; this appeared to be part of the design of the facility, because to one side was a huge pit, which, though not technically correct, I will call the abattoir.
See, the basic principle of any biogas production is that you allow anaerobic decomposition, a natural process, to break matter down and, in the process, release various gases. To limit the amount of troublesome ammonia building up, they processed at mesophilic temperatures, 20 to 45 degrees Celsius (i.e., 68 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit). The most important of the gases released, for business purposes, was methane (CH4). A byproduct was Carbon Dioxide (CO2), mostly discharged through stacks.
However, take a moment to consider the slow breakdown of your own body over time. It takes years and, even when you die and the bacteria take over, it takes some time for your soluble parts to fully release all that precious methane. So they have to be chunked up, made into smaller particles to feed into the system. Never being scientifically minded myself, and possessing only a lay understanding of the articles I’ve found on the matter, I still can’t really explain the chemistry behind why the size of the particles matters except by the commonsense logic that less matter to work through means less time decomposing, but, as I learned, it’s best if there isn’t too much bone content and if those flesh-and-gut chunks are pretty small (one piece of literature suggested ≤12mm). The bottom line? You need a steady stream of these little chunks.
Which is to say that, on a huge pad above the fermenting tanks, above the electrical generator building, there was this enormous rectangular pit, the abattoir. This was filled and regularly “topped off” with fresh zombies, most of which, as you know, never stop walking, or in the parlance of the industry, “churning.”
All around this pit ran a track, and on the track a giant piece of equipment, a crane or some other mysterious contraption retrofitted with a giant rowel, like a giant iron spur that would travel around and tear apart all the zombies encroaching on the edge—stirring the pot, as it were—so that those that still continued to walk were always trodding their brethren like wine grapes into finer and finer particles, so that, after sufficient trodding, the smaller chunks fell through a grated floor into a lower level where some combination of machinery and manpower—I was never privy to any but the external, terrestrial aspects of the operation—further broke it down and passed it through a grinder or shredder or chipper onto conveyors that passed this finer material into the fermenting tanks on yet another large pad at a slightly lower elevation.
If I wasn’t so desensitized to violence, I doubt I could be exploring this now so objectively. Even now, I feel a pang of shame for saying all this so matter-of-factly, because, as much as I have come to hate zombies, I can’t completely erase the fact of their origins, as people, as my fellow human beings. How many grandmothers? grandsons? foster children? peacemakers? warriors? activists? apathetic assholes? materialistic fucktards? lovers? haters? artists? workers? beauties? beasts? geniuses? pedants? liars? truth-speakers? guys who once fished another person’s kid out of a ditch just in the nick of time? girls with the blue hair? ladies who sounded like Aretha Franklin singing in the church choir? poor dudes passed out face-first on the curb? grumpy old incapacitated ladies from the grocery store driving around on motorized scooters? fat bodies? athletic bodies? skinny bodies? white bodies? brown bodies? black bodies? all of those bodies, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of American bodies, pulped and pumped this way through the belly of that great and terrifying combine? bodies of every shape, size, and color, as the books on the shelves of my bibliobunker, all of them deemed irrelevant, obsolete, by the foremost masters of all things holy and wise.
At any rate, from here, the gas was piped into a number of interconnected but individually valved storage tanks: some of these feeding straight into the generators to be burned and converted to electricity sent out along the power lines, some of them feeding into another series of tanks that removed impurities like sulfur (and presumably at least some of the terrible odor) from the methane and only then being pumped through a system in the same direction as the power lines—that is, electricity and gas for some new iteration of civilization none of us could ever hope to see.
Indeed, someone must have been receiving and using all this power, and rumor had it that it was a single stronghold, though no one knew for sure where this was, or who ran it. Some said it was an island with castle walls newly erected; some said it was a single office building converted into an all-purpose community with an underground command bunker; some said it was a military base bought and paid for by billionaire defense contractors; some said it was one white guy named Adam in one villa in a mountain stronghold where all the beautiful women of the region had been renamed Eve. This was all speculation, of course. I suspected it was none of these, but only a well-fortified community of rich people, perhaps on one of the islands. Regardless, I have since run some numbers based on various facts and figures I found around the library about power usage in the Pacific Northwest, and, while my own calculations are probably wildly off the mark, it seems that the plant was probably generating enough electricity and gas for a village of about 200 or 250 households at our old, pre-Collapse consumption levels (more if they had sacrificed, fewer if they always left the lights on). For some reason, the number 320 is lodged in my head. Why? No particular reason except that was .00001% of the 320 million Americans extant before The Collapse and I couldn’t help but think that the number was significant somehow. But, alas, for now, there was so much chaos, and this was all nothing more than disgruntled conjecture, and all we could really surmise was that whichever master(s) of the old world maintained such a place probably also owned this plant—and, by proxy, all those churning bodies.
And how many of those bodies did it take to keep that mysterious community or base running?
Well, it took the bodies of those of us who worked it (as I’ve said before, between 50 and 66 at a time). Since there were several convoys in running at all times, it’s safe to say there were hundreds of people toiling at the task. However, to only count us would be a gross oversight. While we did have our jobs, and though these jobs were clearly important, our bodies were relatively few when compared to the teeming hordes of bodies that must have flowed through that abattoir.
I scribbled down some notes once, tried to calculate what it must have taken to feed that beast, compared that against my estimates of the number of bodies filling the abattoir pit, and I think it’s within the realm of reasonable to say that they must have been processing—and the roughnecks of the convoys must have been delivering—something on the order of 1,200 to 1,500 bodies a day. That’s 8,400 to 10,500 bodies a week or 436,800 to 546,000 bodies a year; and yet I fear these numbers may not quite capture the magnitude of the thing, so consider for a moment that Seattle, at the turn of the century, only had a population of about 564,000. Of course, the whole metro had a little over 4 million at the time of The Collapse, but imagine what a gaping hole would be left if the entire population of the Seattle were fermented into methane over the course of any single year, each of those bodies chewed up, belched out into the gas lines and electricity cables for a couple hundred families to power their devices or one tech-money Adam in his mountaintop villa to keep the lights on so he could see all the flesh of the endless line of Eves he fucked in his next phase of Genesis.
That bodies might be used this way seemed very novel to me in my early days as a roughneck, yet another terrible new feature of apocalyptic life, but I’ve come to realize that this perception owes mainly to ignorance as variations on this theme had been going on throughout human history. That I had never personally witnessed such wanton wastes of bodies before didn’t mean it hadn’t happened. It only took my whole world falling apart for me to discover that it never was my world, that I had simply always lived as if it were mine—the weight of all that security borne by the bodies of others.
In my library, my bibliobunker, I recently re-read the following passage from Ta Nehisi Coates’ short book Between the World and Me and was struck for the first time by how other people—here, a black American—expressed a sentiment about the black body that once lay so far outside my own realm of experience but, since The Collapse, since all the great collective systems that had once existed to protect my position, however tenuous, had finally caught up and started to speaking as well to me:
There is nothing uniquely evil in those destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
It occurred to me that white writers hadn’t been speaking of this experience back in those days precisely because it hadn’t been their experience and this was important knowledge; indeed, the destruction of bodies before The Collapse had been most prominent when those bodies were brown. And neither was this state of affairs new to the second decade of the 21st century. W.E.B. Du Bois had this to say on the subject of black bodies a whole century earlier: “Immediately black slaves became not men but things; and were valued as things are valued, by the demand and supply of their labor force as represented by their bodies.” And Frederick Douglass long before that: “I appear before you this evening as a thief and a robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body from my master and ran off with them.”
At least in America, such bodies had always been human-shaped packets of energy to use or waste as the powerful saw fit. This hadn’t been exclusive to black bodies, but it was most prominent and most brutally enforced, as in the fields, in the luxurious households, in the mines, in the factories, in the prisons, in the wars—all as in the abattoir.
It seems somehow fitting that the dawn of the age of the zombie might not only destabilize civilization but also destabilize my own understanding of what it means to be civilized. Is it any accident that the first zombie movie ever made, all the way back in 1932, was titled White Zombie? Not likely. Forgive me if Plymouth’s tragedy stoked a little mysticism in me. Consider also that the movie’s plot revolved around a white plantation owner in Haiti, a terrible mesmerist who enslaved others to engage in his profit-mongering. Consider how, in one incredibly symbolic scene, several enslaved black zombies powered a grinding wheel, walking round and round a shaft dropping down into a kind of well, and how one of them, with no emotion, fell over the edge down to the grinder—and the others continued to turn while their fellow was ground and ground and ground to nothing.
Similarly, as you will later see, I remember looking down into the writhing gore-flooded abattoir of DeComp, and realizing that the faces in it were not placid like the zombies of White Zombie but were turned to the same ends, unified in that unsettling shade of gray that accompanies the death of all men’s and all women’s flesh.
No, there was no segregation, no racial animus, and yet I wouldn’t celebrate this achievement in this context, because zombies are not by nature harmonious, and step on one another’s heads just to get a little higher, but mainly because there is nothing to celebrate in the moans and the groans and the howls and the shrieks and the sound of a giant machine chewing through bones, flinging wads and scraps of every color, but most of all red, red, red, and a kind of mottled gray, a boiling mass of multicultural flesh buzz-sawed beyond distinction by the terrible rowel of industry, white and black and brown and yellow and red feet trodding the slops and nameless filaments into gruel to filter through the cracks down to the grinders and sluice conveyors and, CH4 molecule by CH4 molecule, through digesters and generators, through pipes and wires, and eventually into the homes of whoever owns what used to be their bodies.
By the time bodies were shuffled down into the abattoir, what did the Majority Shareholders care what color they were? All bodies decomposed at the same rate. What possessed our employers was simple: how to get enough bodies in the vats to meet their quotas.
Human life was always a war between the weak many and the powerful few, but what so many of us failed to grasp was that we had always been clamoring, clutching desperately to whatever scraps of esteem our keepers tossed our way just to keep us feeling a little more—maybe ≤12mm more—superior than the next gutsack beside us.
Call the digesters inevitable.
Call DeComp a correction.
Call it whatever you want, but first imagine: 1,500 redblooded bodies per day, bodies of every dimension and description, pulped down to slurry so some blueblood none of us would ever meet could keep hosting dinner parties, raising crystal stemware full of finely aged wine, toasting their own good health and fortune.