The Story of Here Begins

To read the first post in this series, "The Story of Here Begins" click here.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A world made by hand needn't wait

The “growing season” is over at New Leaf Gardens. Considering our location on the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains, at an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet, it is remarkable that temperatures have only just begun to occasionally dip below freezing. Most of the time we still enjoy lows in the 40s. But the few frosty nights we’ve had were enough to hang a closed sign on the last of the warm-loving plants. Fortunately we saw it coming and last week harvested the remaining zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, green tomatoes, bell peppers, and jalapeños. The tough guys—broccoli, cabbage, carrots, spinach, and arugula—just shrugged off the cold. Fuhgeddaboutit.

Shorter days and less to do in autumn means more time for reading, and I just finished The Witch of Hebron, the wonderful sequel to James Howard Kunstler’s novel, World Made by Hand. The story is set in Union Grove, once a rural bedroom community in upstate New York that had fallen prey, like everywhere else, to the faux culture of “happy motoring” suburbanization: strip malls, tract housing, big box retail, lots and lots of cars, and the roads they drive on. But when Kunstler begins his tale--“Sometime in the not-distant future…”—times have changed, a lot.

And then again, not so much.

Not long from now, the inevitable breakdown of globalized civilization has occurred. Kunstler wisely wastes no time explaining exactly how. Who cares? Plausible triggers abound. Pick one and pull it—and the result is the same: The web of everyday life goes from stretching half way around the world, connecting us to Saudi oil fields and Chinese sweat shops, to having strands no longer than a few miles from home. The word “local” takes on new meaning, carrying connotations that would never have occurred to our ancestors, for whom the word “global” would have meant little.

Kunstler sets himself apart from other writers who’ve tried to imagine such a world—and who usually populate it with cannibals, evil zombies, and a sky that will never be blue again—by remembering the creed of all good novelists: Fiction is folks. In other words, it’s about the people, stupid. Kunstler manages to portray the collapse of everything we presently regard as indispensible, while somehow leaving us with the idea that not all change is bad and not all people are evil. People are just people. Some of them will take from you if they can, but most will surprise you every time by their willingness to give of themselves for what is right.

A true prophet is one who warns of possible, and even unavoidable, dangers ahead, but who prefers to talk about the hope and healing potential that always travel in the company of hardship. With these books, Kunstler has demonstrated that he writes from that tradition, and is more than a mere merchant of fear.

Sure, the people of Union Grove must deal with challenges that modern society had appeared to banish over the horizon: law and order, local governance, health care, religious tolerance, food production, and so on. But far from being a prison of constant fear or drudgery, the life Kunstler imagines also includes beauty, tenderness, compassion, camaraderie, regained connection to the natural world, and even to the mystical side of the universe. Life goes on, Kunstler says, and while it will certainly be different—and really hard at times—it is also very, very good.

As I turned the last page, I must admit to feeling a kind of weird, forward-looking nostalgia. Frankly, most days I’d rather take my chances with ordinary bandits, like the ones the people of Union Grove must face, than to deal with those stalking us now—billionaire debt barons who work at a distance and behind a weak façade of respectability, but who rob us blind nonetheless. I’d rather brave the elements and work directly with the earth for my food, than to remain in the clutches of Monsanto, et al. I’d rather learn the hyper-local politics of getting along with my neighbors, than to ever again enter another voting booth to “choose” which soulless politician will have the right to sell me to the highest bidder in the upcoming term. I want the unbearable noise of this machine culture to stop so we can get on with life that is hard, but good too.

Then it hit me: A world made by hand needn’t wait for the collapse of anything. It is not so much a state of world affairs as it is a state of the heart and the mind—backed up by the labor of my hands. It is the world I’m already helping to create in partnership with my family and neighbors. New Leaf Gardens—our half-acre urban farm—is not an agricultural anachronism —it is a prototype of things to come. By “mapping the geography of home” in these pages, I have already begun to settle in to the landscape here, to feel the rhythms under my feet, to bring the world here and now within reach of my hands to be made anew. We’ve begun to choose on purpose and (slightly) ahead of time, to let go of our belief in the “cult of growth” that Kunstler’s characters had ripped from them forcibly by distant events.

People who have caught on to the magnitude of the changes humanity faces in coming years typically describe their process of reaction as “preparation.” That is an adequate word, but incomplete, because it implies only a future focus. Preparation always looks forward, even when it takes appropriate action in the present. The danger is that this can lead to a life that is forever deferred, waiting for a signal from some external source that it’s time to actually have what you have prepared yourself for.

I resolve to be more mindful of the kind of life I want today. If I choose a world made by hand in the small moments of daily life, then when the future arrives I’ll be ready for it. Who knows? Maybe the people around me will be inspired to do the same—and we may not even remember what all those other novelists told us—that we’re supposed to be terrified and claw each other’s eyes out for survival.

That choice is likely to look quite ordinary--maybe something like this:

With the growing season behind us at the farm, now the “tucking in” season begins. Soon we’ll take the dried leaves, stalks, and vines from the ground where they’ve served so well and send them on the next leg of their journey: to the compost pile. There, we’ll turn things over to the silent alchemists who routinely turn a summer’s remains into gold—black gold. With the right mixture of manure begged from nearby horse owners, unused and rotting vegetables from the church food bank, bags and bags of raked up leaves the neighbors donate, the husks of this season’s garden, and an enthusiastic crew of recycling organisms, we will spend the dark winter by the fire, while the compost pile effortlessly grows food for our food.

Some of the above ingredients will go directly into our sleepy vegetable beds in the next few weeks, where they’ll lie under a cover of leaves and straw, composting in situ—which is a fancy way of saying, “where we want it, so we don’t have to move it again in the spring.” Oh, and it bears mentioning that we will do our best to work with a mindset of gratitude and love for the Unfathomable, the One who decreed that from the death of one season will arise nourishing food for the next—a living perpetual motion machine that takes your breath away when you stop to ponder the debt we owe to its workings.

Back in the kitchen, the “preserving season” is still going strong. My wife, Issa, Queen of the Realm, and Wise Woman of Food, labors each day to fill the shelves in the basement cold room with every imaginable store against the winter. In addition to putting up the last of the straggling veggies from the farm, she recently transformed 150 pounds of apples (that we picked from the trees of an elderly neighbor who can no longer deal with the harvest herself) into jars and jars of apples sauce, apple butter, canned apple pie filling, and dried apples.

In the process she has also done most of our Christmas shopping for the year. Six weeks from now, when others can’t find a parking place at the mall, we’ll be sitting at the dining table with a cup of mint tea listening to Amy Grant sing Emmanuel and  Breath of Heaven on the stereo and putting ribbons on jars and loaves of pumpkin or zucchini bread.

By hand, day by day, we’re discovering an alternative to sinking madness around us. What do you know? It’s not so hard after all.