This was the key, it seemed to us. Everything was fine, would continue to be fine, would eventually get even better as long as the supermarket did not slip. –Don DeLillo, White Noise
Much farm work will have to be done cooperatively, which would form a basis for a broad infrastructure of social relations, ceremonies and traditions among neighbors, a kind of â€˜glue’ for local communities. — James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency
People are a problem. -â€“Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Original BBC Radio Series)
Physical security factored over community. Is that a formula for survival? Readers of these Dispatches are aware that the great variable for me in any post-Globalization scenario is indeed security: given forced localization, how will a fellow like me fare when a certain percentage of the closest humans (a small percentage, I like to think), addicted to all things partially hydrogenated served over two hours of Rush Limbaugh, could have been cast in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (deserving to be locked up for their irresponsible land use alone, forget about their personal behavior and politics), and a certain percentage of the rest (also small, but, ya know, it adds up) seem to be squabbling adolescent bully style over the local acequia (community water ditch) rights. (Have you read or seen Milagro Beanfield War? This is worse.) And so I’ve posted some Dispatches expressing concern about the prospect of armed bands of Meanies who might want to do terrible, Darfur-like things to a dude in a solar powered ranch with nothing but admittedly vicious goats to guard his family. Ya know, should the Wal-Mart frozen entree aisle be permanently closed.
But three experiences of late have made me feel a lot better about what you might call the Kumbaya Factor: this mythic, allegedly crucial “community” that saucer-eyed college audience members are always asking me about during the question and answer session following my live speaking events. As in, “Don’t you think an important part of local living is going to be close-knit communities, working together, living together, helping each other grow food and make clothes, and take care of the children?” At this moment, I usually think of my dog-shooting neighbor, my vehicle-defacing neighbor, my view-defacing neighbor, my wife-defacing neighbor, my “the skin color of the President is wrong” neighbor, and my “I frivolously sue more people before breakfast than most people sue all day” neighbor. I envision very little holding-hands-and-dancing-â€˜round-the-rainbow with these people. But I smile and say to the saucer-eyed college student, “Yes, but it might not be so easy. I mean, just because the state trooper is no longer manning the local speed trap, does that mean everyone will be holding hands and singing Kumbaya?”
And lately I’ve been thinking the answer is, actually, “yes” (with apologies for all the tears I’ve caused to well up in saucer-eyes during my period of uncertainty). Or it can be. If the “everyone” in my question is simply amended to “everyone I like.” The first of my three recent encouraging experiences was the tomato-for-eggs barter with my dear friend and top-notch neighbor KB that occurred after the Great August Hail of Aught Eight. We’ve just passed the one-year mark since that tragedy-cum-community-bonding-experience, and I noted it, because it was on the anniversary of the day my crops were destroyed by Climate Change in one terrible hour last year that I harvested a room full of tomatoes and began canning them this year.
The second Kumbaya-affirming experience unfolded over the course of two days last week, and involved the vast and magically-expanding Thompson family, refugees from a religious cult back East who already live like a post-Apocalyptic event has occurred, and who give birth to new babies in home births faster than my sweetheart can knit booties for them. Every time I see them, they have a new kid. The Thompsons make their own clothes (all the women and girls wear calico dresses and Amish-like bonnets), bake bread, homeschool their kids, raise goats (their eldest daughter Heather, now 16 and driving a pick-up truck, is noted in Farewell, My Subaru as my primary caprine consultant), and all around live a spiritual life centered on, as far as I can tell, family, love, humor, and conspiracies about the intention of government in general.
I love these people, not just because their bread is so delicious and it’s a miracle to have a bakery in our fantastically remote valley, but because of how unbelievably similar my values are to theirs. Except for the Netflix and the wackier of the conspiracy theories. These are some of the funnest, hippest, kindest, happiest people I know, and my one source of stress when I visit their bakery is that I know I will be delayed getting to the rest of my errands that day by thoughtful and laughter-filled conversation.
When I spotted the Thomspsons (actually only about 14 of them) in the feed store in town last week, what struck me was that they, to a one, wore the same dazed, overwhelmed look I do when I have to navigate fluorescent-lit establishments flanked by traffic and traffic lights and stressed drivers with threatening bumper stickers. Keep in mind this megalopolis that stuns us country bumpkins is a small New Mexico hamlet in which the new food co-op manager, himself a refugee from Southern California, told me he felt, “a little trapped because there’s nothing to do after 5 p.m.” That’s how rural we live. We have things like Total Quiet at night, and a visible galactic smear.
Thomson patriarch Ned, holding the latest-and-already-bonneted infant, seemed rooted in a spot near the ferret cages when I heard him utter, “Feed store. Feed store. Why are we here again?”
For a few seconds no one in the family seemed absolutely sure. Then one of the replicas in the five-to-seven-year-old range lit up. “Chickens!” she chirped with a skip, her bonnet nearly falling off.
I said my hellos, and found out that one of the neighbors had let his vicious dog loose and before all was said and done, all but one of the Thompson chickens had been eaten.
“We just had ducklings!” I told the crowd of Thompsons, who seemed visibly relieved to have one of their rural species at this town Away Game. “Now we have too many chickens and were gonna cull our flock anyway. You want four or eight?”
“We’ll take eight, if you can spare them,” Ned said, and, as we forgot our surroundings and lapsed into loud poultry-husbandry analysis, it was decided that one or two of their bakers-dozen brood would show up at the Funky Butte Ranch the next morning (as far as I can tell, there appears to be only one son among the bonnets: he wears Carhartts).
“Heather’s got her driving permit and maybe Mel will join her to help you guys,” mom Angela Thompson told me. It was hard to envision the tiny but spunky and calico-clad Heather behind the wheel of a three-quarter-ton pick-up barreling down the Black Diamond Funky Butte Ranch “driveway,” but it wasn’t a long drive, and these people were rugged individualists if there ever were any.
Six of â€˜em caromed down the canyon-side slope the next morning at sunrise, or at least six of â€˜em survived the drive. And for the entire forty-five-minute visit, every one was a combination of intelligently independent and respectful.
We were a blur of calico and denim in the chicken coop straw that morning, having a great time of it. Mel had this great technique whereby he snagged a hen with a quick grab to the ankle. Once we had seven grabbed and boxed for the Thompsons, the chickens were on what you might call “high alert,” and it took some strategy to bag the eighth and final one. Here’s the strategy, in case you want to try it at home: I made a mid-air dive-and-grab of a Rhode Island Red that I’m choosing to remember as particularly memorable. It made me feel that I was getting back in shape following my general paternity leave from exercise. I returned to the Ranch house covered in straw and chicken poop. I could single-handedly have fertilized the garden that morning.
Their truck loaded with poultry and humans, I told the Thompson kids to squeeze everyone into the cab (a nearly impossible task) once they got back to the paved road since passengers in the truck bed, I thought, was illegal.
“Yep, until you’re 11!” one of the littler daughters sang. This was a family that knew about stuffing Ridiculously Oversized American Trucks. We bantered for a few minutes about goats (they didn’t want Melissa, who I’m ready to pass along so we can breed Nico in the fall), because they had decided to stick with Pygmy goats, which they found easier to handle. We talked about solar power, another element our families share along with focusing on family itself and trying to maximize fun in any given moment. The Thompsons had just finished a system of radiant head for their home whereby sun-headed water circulated in pipes they’d laid under their floor. They hardly needed any supplemental heat, even in winter, Heather told me.
Then they were gone, Heather clearly having been instructed not to overstay their welcome. They left two loaves of just-baked bread and three cinnamon rolls whose calories I’m still burning off several weeks later. And I’m also left with the feeling that this is one of my favorite families in the world. Kind-hearts, good senses of humor, loving life and each other, similar politics, different religion but nearly identical spirituality to mine, and a visit that felt like part community event, part social event, and part exchange of goods.
So that was the second of my recent experiences that makes me aware that my community network is already broader than I realized. Funny how a few psychotic, violent, drunken, vandalizing, wolf-demonizing, dark skinned President-hating bad apple neighbors can delay a fellow’s realizing that. The third encounter was just a few days later (a few days ago now), and finally solidified the notion in my mind that bartering is simply not a freak occurrence in my valley, even while Wal-Mart remains open. In fact, based on the amount of time I spend exchanging goods or help or knowledge with other folks in my valley, I’m finally admitting to myself that (especially at this time of year), I’m living increasingly local at very core levels.
Indeed, still glowing from the pleasant Thompson chickens-for-bread-and-fresh-cinnamon-rolls exchange, I accepted my neighbor RC’s offer to pick up “as many bamboo poles as I could take” from his riverside Ranch, about three miles away as the duckling flies. In exchange, he and his wife wouldn’t mind some of our goat cheese (chevre variety), which evidently was gaining some renown in the valley.
During the pick-up, I told RC I’d like to buy some of the live bamboo he grows and sells, and we negotiated a price. Or I think we did, eventually. RC is one of those explicitly Zen people who are so mellow you feel as though a raised voice might physically injure him. He tends to speak in Koans.
“I’m envisioning transplanting some young bamboo this autumn, or perhaps next spring,” he told me. “So you might want to begin preparing your soil now.”
Now, normally I carry some suspicion of violently-serene people, but I told RC I admired his dedication to the quiet life. Especially when he told me I’d have to spend hours trimming the branches from the dried poles we were loading into my own Ridiculously Oversized American Truck, and which I planned to use as the ceiling and walls for the shade gazebo my sweetheart and I were building (and which will be the subject of the next Dispatch).
“You simply sit,” he explained of his trimming technique. “Give yourself to the afternoon sawing off the branches of your future structure. Listen to the birds, to the bugs, to the beat of your heart.”
“Yeah,” I thought. “After finishing my magazine column deadline, canning the tomatoes, milking the goats, changing the baby, kissing my sweetheart, making a salad, and watching Curb Your Enthusiasm care of Netflix.” I calculated I had about six minutes that week for Zen and the Art of Bamboo Trimming.
RC’s land is paid off, but he has no insurance nor savings. “My insurance is my good health,” the sixty-year-old told me.
When I got home and related this chill-life-is-healthy philosophy, my sweetheart told me that sloths move so slowly that mold grows on their fur. “And it takes them three minutes to turn their heads,” she said as we unloaded bamboo from the truck bed.
I suggested we get one as a pet, because I admire the pace. “Now that’s a relaxing lifestyle,” I observed. “I bet they have almost no high blood pressure or heart attacks. Green tea or no green tea. Red wine or no red wine.”
Outside the koans and the impeccable bamboo plantation, you realize quickly that RP and his wife N are simply two shy people who are also very much in love, and have been for decades. Their intense dedication to relaxation, quietness and mellowness is not a weapon, nor intended as a contrast to or judgment of anyone else. They’re just folks comfortable in their home space.
I can relate, even if I feel like a ping pong ball in a Lotto machine in their presence. And even though, over a goat cheese snack at the end of the visit, RC had to ask me to “slow down” my monologue about my son’s first steps. I was almost visibly making his head spin with my fifth gear storytelling pace. “I can’t slow down without losing detail.” I told him truthfully. “The thoughts come too fast.”
Before I left, RC got downright business-like in telling me the cost of transplanting the five live bamboo trees I wanted to line our inner fencing for shade reasons (even though I don’t know if the transaction will take place this autumn or next spring, or in some other dimension). (They ain’t cheap, by the way.) I realized before I left his ranch that it was unclear if I know whether mine was a social visit, a business transaction, or a community barter experience. It was, of course, all of these. And I was fine with that. These were kind-hearted people helping me beautify my home. I fervently hoped they enjoyed the goat cheese (N later told me she made it into a pepper-speckled, ratatouille-topped toast snack).
Whatever the classification of the recent visits to and from the Funky Butte Ranch, no matter the quirkiness or mode of dress or speech of the neighbors (or myself), what I realize when I think about recent events is that I’m going to start focusing intently on what I consider to be the positive sides of local community living, and what it will take to bring it about as the dominant form of society, should current safety nets go away. (It’s astonishing to think that this is the mode in which most humans have lived for most of the species’ history, and still how most humans, for lack of any other option, live today). Despite what I see now had been my creeping cynicism, based on some of my genuinely bent neighbors, that the future “community” might look more like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than a sort of permanent Woodstock, I know believe the evidence shows that a Good Post-Supermarket Future is possible. Eminently.
Patience and diligence are both part of the mix. RC and I, after four years as neighbors who hardly visited, are finally getting to know one another. In a world of quick, meaningless, often essentially anonymous meetings, this is a pace with which I am comfortable. I am willing to be friendly to newcomers, but you’re not going to be in my inner circle unless I have known you for quite some time and we have some certainty about the contents of each other’s hearts. That might be the primary Community Lesson of my recent interaction with KB, RC and the Thompsons.
Tomatoes for eggs, bread-and-goat-advice for live chickens, bamboo for goat cheese. Another important discovery for me as I bask in the glow of the recent experiences with friendly, kind, respectful locals is that I’ve always had no shortage of terrific neighbors. And by nature, when thinking about anything other than “Could my valley become Darfur?” this is what I like to think I focus on. It’s been that way since the moment I moved to the Funky Butte Ranch: Lupy swimming across the river to deliver goat meds and ice cream during the flood of ’06 comes to mind. D&C giving my sweetheart and I a baby crib, MO towing my late Subaru out of said flooding river, and the list goes on. There have always been more good folks than bad ones in my valley (I believe this is true everywhere). But before I bust out the Peter, Paul and Mary record, I have to report one final jolting reality check that comes to me as I finish this Dispatch: the Tribe, as I refer to My Kind of Local Community in my recent Washington Post essay on the subject, is what you might call dispersed.
I can think of fifty people in my valley I’d like to initiate as post-Apocalyptic tribal members (my primary criterion is kind-heartedness more than any specific skill set). Among these we’d have teachers, farmers, shoemakers, and yes, writer/goat milk providers (it gives this former suburbanite great pleasure to think of himself as not completely useless in Tribe Kumbaya). But here’s the rub (and readers here might want to shield their children from the blatant paranoia of the rest of this paragraph): the prospective members of the tribe as I envision it live from a half mile to 13 miles away. Let’s say the worst happens and Globalization collapses along with already locally-tenuous civil order (and here I always like to remind folks that this is not something I am even remotely rooting for — I am a Patriot and fan of the current society simply from being a journalist who has traveled the world and has seen how much better the Western Democratic Republic model is than just about any society that has ever been, at least any mass society requiring government).
But we’re imagining for a moment that law and order breaks down. I’m chugging along with my family not so differently than I do now, with the possible exception of Netflix, when a band of the Wal-Mart-dependent bullies who before the collapse sued people, beat their loved ones, and stole acequia water, decide they would like twenty of my chickens and are willing to do bad things to get them. What then? Of course, as I’ve postulated before, perhaps I’ll be ready, with my land-mined entrance road and family trained in weapon use. But that, at best, would only hold off a band of a dozen bad guys for a little while. We, the Dispersed Kumbaya Tribe, need some sort of Bat Signal, some kind of Alarm that can be raised, so that fifty Good Guys can be on the scene in twenty minutes to dispatch with the Baddies. Or else we all need to move much closer than our current clustering.
Now, I self-consciously labeled these imaginings “paranoid,” but that’s just because I grew up in the Petro-suburbs, where few folks even know their neighbors, no one even says “folks,” let alone “y’all,” and any kind of “armed organizing” reeks of religious extremists in Waco. But in truth, what I’m starting to envision is no different than the modus operandi of the Minutemen who helped start the United States of America. These guys had decades of preparation in insta-mobilizing that originally had nothing to do with getting rid of the British. It had to do with getting rid of any threat. So I’ve begun to raise the prospect of training with some of my prospective tribal members, and folks seem inclined to do it. Ya know, when we’re not too busy milking goats, writing blogs, raising kids and watching Netflix. Certainly no one thinks my ideas are outlandish. This is nothing folks haven’t thought about already themselves. I’ve never yet raised the issue to a surprised prospective tribal member in my valley.
Still, in the end, I don’t want to fixate on security. That’s no way to live. Security, in a post-Apocalyptic scenario, is for me just a means to an end. And that end is A Continuation of the Good Life. Lately I’m feeling the portents are good. When your store is your field and your neighbor’s, and his yours, well, it’s a heck of a fun way to live, and to my mind better’n a fluorescent lit, brand-screaming supermarket aisle. I love my local barter store shoppers, my community collaborators, my gateways to true local living.
The opportunities for community living keep popping up: in recent months I’ve bartered eggs for nettles (crucial anti-juniper-allergy medicine), carrots for vigas (local wood posts), and literature for child care. What I think I love best about this is the absence of sacrifice, the sheer breadth of flavors available to the community liver. Ya know, I decide I want an “on the beach” feel for my shade gazebo: bingo, I have a neighbor who happens to be a bamboo connoisseur (RC is in fact a twenty year member of the American Bamboo Society â€“ hey, ya know, some people collect Beanie Babies). I’m delighted to so acutely learn that all dreams can come true, even without box stores. Local Living and Cush Living can be synonymous, and this, this is one of the loveliest discoveries of my past two weeks, a two weeks filled with many lovely moments and uncountable discoveries.
Postscript: Another name for this month, to my mind, could be The Time of Tomatoes Bursting Forth Like Peaking Popcorn Kernels. I’m in full canning mode, to ensure enough Vitamin C and lycopene for the winter and to accompany our pasta-and-goat cheese feasts in front of the fire. Readers of Farewell, My Subaru will know that harvesting tomatoes is particularly meaningful to me, since, growing up on tasteless orange supermarket baseballs labeled as tomatoes, I didn’t even think I liked these wonders of flavor until I was probably twenty-three-years-old. That was when I first ate a real one. And watching my son scarf our harvest, needless to say, brings me even more joy. He’s got two-and-a-half extra decades in which to enjoy fresh-off-the-vine homegrown tomatoes than I did. And he better keep his appetite up: I only have approximately 17,233 more to harvest, every one of them a jewel that causes a burst of juicy gladness in my belly before it even touches my tongue. The bounty of a dozen plants never becomes familiar or rote. They seem to burst into new dolops of color daily.
The tie in between tomatoes and literature continues to, shall we say, ripen. I was cradling a colander full of pear-shaped beauties when the news came in from my publisher: Farewell, My Subaru is on the Boston Globe bestseller list this week. All I can do is convey my huge appreciation to you, the readers: six months after paperback publication, something like this only happens organically. I hope it reflects a momentum that not only spreads to other lists, but means that more and more folks are getting interested in sustainability. It’s fine with me if they approach it through my own carbon-neutral misadventures. That wouldn’t be a bad epitaph: “His goofiness emboldened others to attempt sustainabilty.”
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