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.


Betsy said...

Thank you for this optimistic look at the present/future. I'm still reeling from last Tuesday's election(our local results were especially brutal) and am looking for a way to move forward independent of our "leaders".

Alan Ray said...

Betsy...There is no shortage of reasons to feel discouraged, that's for sure. But hope is always closer than we think, when we look for it. Thank you for hanging on to what you believe in.


Anonymous said...

How can such a wonderfully talented writer such as you be so admiring of such a horribly inane, incredibly sexist writer such as Kunstler????

Again, YOU write beautifully. Kunstler, not so much.

Alan Ray said...

Sarah...Your post brought a smile to my face, because it is a rare critic who can gracefully praise and chastise at the same time. Well done.

Let me answer your question by saying that I admire the broad strokes of Kunstler's vision of a world where some handmade sanity returns to life just out of necessity. Some of the "solutions" we struggle so hard to find now may well arise organically in the absence of technological counterfeits. The need to survive will separate the way-of-life wheat from the chaff far more effectively than a committee or task force. And the result may well be that we find beauty and resilience were here all along, waiting to be embraced. I see that in Kunstler's pages.

Does that mean I approve of his tendency to send his female characters back to the 18th century? Absolutely not (though I do think that gender roles are likely to change in unpredictable ways along with everything else). That facet of his novels leaves much--a hell of a lot--to be desired.

However, as I've written, I think our ability to expect more of the future than a bad science fiction movie is perhaps the most critical component of all in preparing ourselves for what comes next. I am willing to give writers like Kunstler some leeway because I think absorbing the image he paints of a post-collapse community that functions at all--flaws and all--is a necessary first step to believing we can actually build it.


Anonymous said...

Really though? If all of Kunstler's Black characters, upon happenstance living in the Long Emergency, found themselves suddenly incapable of doing anything but eating chicken and watermelon, shuffling and willingly slaving away in the fields for the white guys, you would think his writing ridiculous, and rightly so. There is no difference here. Zip, zero. Sexism is no different than racism, except that it is more prevalent. Why is it so easy to allow leeway for the literal de-humanization of half of humanity? Much as I admire your gentle acceptance of others (I wish I had half of it!) this matter does not lend itself to "leeway."

Part of the problem is that Kunstler IS popular, and he has shown blatant sexism in many of his writings. I see many men commenting on his blog site who are openly gleeful of the prospect of uppity women losing ground with their human rights, while others simply allow them... leeway. There is precious little defense of women there, and in the past when I have done it, I have been simply shouted down, or told I am being unrealistic. There is a very good reason that so few women post there. So no, I do not allow him that leeway. The future will be difficult enough for women without fantasies like his making it harder. Even your own glowing review was posted to the widely-read Energy Bulletin. I suppose I am asking you to think about what message his book really sends to us out here.

Sharon Astyk gave a very good (and more charitable than I would make) overview of Kunstler's writing:

Later here:

Carolyn Baker's take here:

Thank you for listening, since I know you did :)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

That last comment posted twice so I removed one :)

imaginethat said...

I haven't even read the guy. On sexism, I agree it is equal to racism, and to the ease with which some kill in criminal acts and in war, and corporatism. Fascism.

Brother Alan, a long time ago, Lennon sang:

"You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world....

"You say you got a real solution
Well, you know
We'd all love to see the plan...."

You've sorta always been willing to get out in front of things, show us your plan in other words. Thanks bro'.

Alan Ray said...

What an outstanding dialogue on such an important topic. It would be hard to think of one more vital to our humanity as we move forward into uncharted waters. have challenged me so much that I will devote this week's post to my reply. Thank you for your passion.

imagine...the plan evolves as we refine our words, so I'll do my best.


Anonymous said...

Alan, thank you for giving it thoughtful consideration in the face of my passion about the subject. However, that was no stinkin' challenge. :) HERE is a stinkin' challenge:

When you have the time to do so, I also passionately urge you to read a few articles by Robert Jensen (Prof. Journalism at University of Texas) - his treatment and understanding of sexism in particular is one of the most compelling (and as a woman myself, heart-rending sometimes) that I have found:

One of my favorite articles of his from a few years ago:

Also, another incredible thinker is Paul Kivel. One of my favorite articles of his here:

His book is here:

Alan, I have come across very few men who are willing to make this kind of self-examination. You give me hope.

Anonymous said...

One more page I hope you read at some point, about The Oakland Men's Project (started by Paul Kivel, among others):

Alan Ray said...

Sarah...on second thought, I begin to think this conversation should continue here for a bit, not in the week's post.

First of all,I've spent my whole adult life pursuing balanced and equitable relationships with the women in my life, so I am on your side! I've even had my share of confrontations with other men on the subject. (In fact there is more than one ex-husband out there who thinks I'm partly responsible for their wives' jailbreak--just because I encouraged them to stand up for themselves.) As a parent and step-parent, I've raised four daughters on the idea of female empowerment and entitlement. Come to think of it I've tried to raise four sons on the same principle, by example, if nothing else. I believe feminine power is more than a voting bloc. It is a sacred and mystical facet of human existence.

As a student of shamanism and traditional medicine, I long ago concluded that the destruction of the wise women of Europe during the Inquisition was among the most destructive and tragic events in human history.

So when you asked in your comment how I, of all people, could admire someone like Kunstler, who is very vulnerable to charges of blatant sexism, I had to stop and ask myself, yes, why? Why did I enjoy these books, after all?

I've already mentioned one reason--that he find optimism in collapse where most others see only horrific catastrophe--but I quickly realized it goes much deeper. Frankly, I resonated with the male characters in the books as they struggled to come to grips with their own post-industrial, post-collapse masculinity. On reflection, I realized that, in general, it wasn't that Kunstler had created male characters who manifestly set out to oppress women in the story--it was rather his lack of imagination in creating strong female characters to begin with (if you want to offer the benefit of the doubt). Robert Earle and Loren Holden, for instance are not blatantly sexist. (That can't be said of Brother Jobe, but perhaps he was meant to spotlight what isn't good. We never really trust him, after all.) These are men doing their best to understand themselves and the world, foreshadowing a transition all men are about to make.

(To be continues)

Alan Ray said...

After decades of thinking about gender issues, we have covered the destructiveness of male supremacy very well, but we have barely begun to scratch the surface of ways in which the Industrial Revolution was a complete disaster for men. It systematically ripped us from daily contact with our families (particularly our children), from craft-based livelihood, from a pace of life set to the seasons, and slammed us into a false masculinity defined by meaningless achievement and financial gain. It has told us we've failed if we can't afford trips to Disneyland and new cars for our graduating high school kids. What we do has become who we are, but what we are expected to do and allowed to do is so constricted, so two dimensional that we tend toward being nothing much at all. And it terrifies us. For most men to lose a job that we've poured everything into sparks a deep existential crisis--because we've no idea who we are without it. That's the way the powers that be want it! A confused, diminished man is oh so easy to control.

And the culture itself is brutal to the very idea of masculinity. At every turn we are doused in images of what we are generally taken to be: Buffoon Man--in commercials where we can't even take cold medicine without a woman, in TV sitcoms where an indulgent, most often condescending woman is needed to save us from ourselves. And so on.

I appreciate Kunstler's male characters because they are in the process of finding out what men might be without all that. The Witch of Hebron, in particular, is a story about the power of male initiation and meaningful rites of passage, a ubiquitous part of most indigenous cultures that ours has utterly abandoned, to our great detriment. (See Robert Bly's "Iron John".)

I have no defense for Kunstler's apparent disregard for bringing women along too in a way that safeguards their standing, dignity and human rights. As I said, I've fought that fight all my life and have no reason to hang my head. He will have to answer for himself.

It is beyond doubt that sexism must go--in all its forms. She if you can detect it in the following statement. How would you feel about this paragraph if the word femininity took the place of masculinity?

"We need to get rid of the whole idea of masculinity. It's time to abandon the claim that there are certain psychological or social traits that inherently come with being biologically male. If we can get past that, we have a chance to
create a better world for men and women."

Robert Jensen wrote that in an article titled, "Men being men is a bad deal." Sorry, but that is a horribly sexist thing to say, we're just not used to recognizing it when it is aimed at men. It is also patently absurd--as if we will simply turn off a couple million years of evolution, the same evolutionary environment that gave us femininity, by the way.

No. There is such a thing as sacred and mystical masculinity too. If we can ever get this monkey culture off our backs, we might just find out what it looks and feels like. That would be a very good day for men and women both.

The bottom line is that the gender war is actually a manifestation of a sick civilization that has made victims of us all. Our victimization may vary by degree, but there is plenty of pain to go around. Maybe its time we started thinking of ourselves as allies against this common enemy and get serious about dragging it out to the garbage dump of history together. (If you can do that, then you will give me hope as well!)

Only then are we really going to have the chance to properly define gender roles in the coming world made by hand.

Anonymous said...

You say you disagree with Jensen, and yet everything you write agrees with him. Ok, how would I feel?

"We need to get rid of the whole idea of femininity. It's time to abandon the claim that there are certain psychological or social traits that inherently come with being biologically female. If we can get past that, we have a chance to create a better world for men and women."

It doesn't bother me one bit, and I do not believe it to be sexist in the least. If anything, feminists (women, mostly) have been hammering away at this for generations now. We have been trying to get rid of the ridiculous constraints that so-called "femininity" has put upon us. Incidentally, to be truly "feminist" is really to be humanist - to change our thinking about men AND women and their proscribed roles, the assumptions about what it means to be a woman or a man. It is precisely that monkey culture that you are talking about wanting to be rid of. I think you may have experienced a knee-jerk reaction to that paragraph. I think you may have misunderstood what Jensen was saying, and I hope it did not dissuade you from reading further. As a feminist/humanist, I deeply hope for men like you to examine their beliefs about what it means to be a man, even if that means he must be thought human first, and male only second.
Perhaps you meant that you would like to change what masculinity stands for? That it should no longer be defined as domination, competition, aggression and violence? In that case, you are in perfect solidarity with Jensen. If you are arguing that masculinity is not already defined as domination, competition, aggression, and violence, then I would respond that you simply do not wish to see the world around you. (I do not believe this is true about you however.)

I am saying that these roles of masculinity and femininity are hurting us, and hurting mostly those of us with less societal power: women, children, and people of color. I do not think of femininity or masculinity, as is now defined by society, as being sacred or mystical in any way. It could be something different, something better someday, and I sincerely hope it will. But we will never get there by refusing to entertain claims or definitions by feminists and humanists. How can we understand other human beings, whether men or women, if we cannot see our own surrender of "our humanity to the project of dominance."?

I do not know if you have heard of it before, but in online feminist blogs there is a phenomenon described (by feminists) as "mansplaining." Here is a link that describes it:

I in no way intend to insult YOU. But it is an illuminating concept that many, if not most, men are unaware of in their daily lives. And it is actually quite funny :)

Alan Ray said...

Sarah...I truly wish you and I were in the same room, because then you would see for yourself, through my body language, etc., that I have the highest amount of respect and admiration for your point of view. I honor you in your role as surrogate for all the women who have suffered as victims of sexism. With all my heart I hope and pray for healing for us all. That is the point of all my writing, actually.

The plain truth is we agree with each other! There is no need to move me off the spot where I stand--it's our spot, the one belonging to people who believe in equity in everything--whether we are talking about female people, black people, young people, old people, gay people, poor people, Islamic people...

(But, how strange that even I find it easy to omit "male people" from that list. Why is that do you think? Is it because men, especially white men, are themselves the victims of gross generalization and stereotyping? Most of us are nowhere near the purveyors of oppression the progressive literature implies.)

With stated and due respect, allow me to say to you that, regardless of intention, it is a bit insulting for women to tell men what it means to be a man. You may critique our behavior, as you have every right to do. You may demand justice when you've been personally wronged. You may advocate for laws and rules that codify your rights in society. (And you have many, many male allies in this quest, myself included.)

But masculinity itself is forever beyond your comprehension, as is femininity to me. It is disappointing to be addressed as if what it means to be a man is an unexamined thing, even among men like myself. Why would anyone assume that?

We are struggling to evolve. Progress is being made. The outlook isn't nearly as bleak as you may think. Men like me--lots and lots of us--are doing the work, mostly out of sight in our own relationships, but it is getting done. We are changing the world from within that mysterious place called masculinity. We are casting off old definitions and searching for new ones--sacred and practical.

What we need most--this cadre of men I speak of--is compassion, understanding, even love. We need fewer lectures and more latitude to handle things as men would. There is a long way to go, sure. But no amount of cajoling is going to get us there any faster. That's why I've suggested we think of this as a common enemy, not ultimately a fight we have with each other.

I recognize that this is a debate that has gone on for generations, so I humbly suggest we leave it here for now, knowing that we each have each other's attention and best intentions. Onward to a better world!


Anonymous said...

I am sorry that you feel uncomfortable with continuing this conversation, as that was never my intention. I just have to answer you though. And this will be my last post here, I promise. BTW, it will not let me post all at once, so is in two parts.

You said,
" strange that even I find it easy to omit "male people" from that list. Why is that do you think? Is it because men, especially white men, are themselves the victims of gross generalization and stereotyping?"

Utterly and absolutely yes, that is why.

I apologize if I tried to tell you what it means to be a man. I had no intention whatsoever to do any such thing. Can you please help me to see where I did that?

But masculinity itself is forever beyond your comprehension, as is femininity to me.

Do you mean "masculinity" to mean, "what it feels like to be a man"? In that case you are entirely correct; that IS beyond my comprehension. However, that is not at all what I meant by the word. I was talking about cultural and societal influences upon men and women, and the resulting pain thereof. Being female does not preclude my ability to understand how society's definition of masculinity (what I mentioned previously) affects and debases you. Nor does your being male preclude your being able to understand how society's definition of femininity affects and debases me either.

Anonymous said...

You also said,
It is disappointing to be addressed as if what it means to be a man is an unexamined thing, even among men like myself. Why would anyone assume that?

I am sorry you are disappointed, but I do believe that most men do NOT examine their own assumptions and prejudices, and find it extremely uncomfortable to do so. You ask why would anyone assume that? I think it because of my direct experience of sexism, and talking about sexism, for the whole of my life. Much the same way a Black person might have direct experience of racism, and might say that most White people never examine their own beliefs and embedded privileges. I understand that men need women to give them compassion, understanding, and love, but I submit that women have almost eternally bent over backwards to understand and love men. I am speaking of something a bit larger than just your own personal experience, and also beyond what men need... to what women need. I do not mean to sound harsh, but this isn't about how any given man feels. It is about stepping up to really see what the woman might be going on about.

Just because you are one of the "good guys" (as clearly you are) doesn't mean you get let off the hook! If anything, the more you understand, the farther down the rabbit hole you are able to go, and the more I would hold you accountable! I understand that "progress is being made" but don't you think that is a little like saying that your good intentions at home matter more than the direct experience of millions of women? I run into this a lot, this sense from the "good" men; a sort of "I'm trying already, can't you give me credit for that?" Please don't get me wrong, I am utterly grateful that there are men like you, but you must understand that you are a bit more extra-ordinary than you realize. You have likely shaped your own world and family and experience in a way that is far healthier than most men have.

What you are missing here is your collective male responsibility towards this subject as it plays out in the world. When I argue that men don't "get it" about sexism, invariably there is a perfectly wonderful man such as yourself who argues that HE gets it, and so I shouldn't be directing my comments toward him. But what I almost never see, is a perfectly wonderful man bringing up the subject of sexism in earnest, asking the women in his life, with purpose and without being prompted, what sort of sexism they have directly experienced, or particularly, discussing sexism earnestly with his male friends. He simply doesn't bring the subject up. Ever. Not in real life, not online, never. I know why men don't do it, because it is the same reason many women don't go around talking about their own direct experience: because it is an intimidating and sometimes dangerous thing to do. Most men would face instant ridicule, shaming, and ostracism from other men, and often from women too. (Many women are anything but feminist.) But keep in mind that your discomfort and unwillingness to talk openly about this subject with say, your buddies at a social event, is the matrix at work in you. That is what I am getting at. It is also a small measure of what a woman faces every day as she walks the street.

I am not trying to beat you down or discount all your hard personal work. I am saying that the work that needs doing is much, much larger than the personal sphere. And I am not trying to fight you. I am trying to talk to you! And that is because I see in you a potential ally. We women deeply love you as individuals. But we are also asking that when you see our anger directed at "men" that there is a very real experience of sexism backing it up that is begging to be recognized and validated by you men publicly. Just as with racism, that experience, that female anger, is there for a reason, no matter how it makes anyone feel.

Ok I am done, I will go away now :)

Alan Ray said...

Sarah...may you go in peace. Just don't stay away.


Jeremy said...

The men's movement is nothing but another pointless division of us and them, a passive retaliation to cyborg feminists.

I found though research and education that most men don't go for it as they see that it is much the problem, as are most of the areas of, and defiantly the extremes of feminism.

Humanist is the way to go, we need less divisions and labels, not more.

As for the original post, nice words, though I do think Kunstler is a doom merchant.

Alan Ray said...

Jeremy...maybe we need a truth and reconciliation commission! I heartily agree to the word "humanist" in this context.