Monday, February 20, 2012

Notes from the Field

Yin Jun
[Guest post by Mark. As I keep saying, being poor takes practice.]

You hear a lot of talk about relocalization and deindustrialization. The pastoral life, the good old days. How romantic! Reality pays you a visit when your pick-axe hits a rock, a chunk hits your face, and you taste your own blood.

Unaware of it at the time, I was a child of privilege, one of five born to a Chairman of Earth and Space Sciences at a State University in New York. We were all expected to be high achievers. I fulfilled the expectation and put in 32 years as an engineer helping the über-wealthy zip around the skies in personal rocket ships from one golf game to another while chalking it off as business expenses, when all I ever really wanted to do was sit out in the woods and cook some food on a stick over a fire.

In 1994 I acquired a 160 acre tract of land in southeast Kansas, for a price only slightly above chicken feed, as a weekender place to go sit by that fire and decompress from the rat-race. 18 years ago the future didn't look quite so ominous. Reel forward to the present and this full-time back-to-the-land experiment is starting to look like a pretty good idea. Some stark realities become self evident however when you are actually 'living the life'. Talking about it is easy. Doing it is something altogether different. Here is where I wish to convey a few 'notes from the field':

1. You realize after a while it is mostly hard, dirty, repetitive and boring. Mud, blood, shit, sweat, discomfort, disappointment, death. There are rewards, but you have to have a passion for it to endure. People who have grown up ranching already know these things of course, but they don't have to adapt. They know the life.

2. If you create an artificial abundance of anything, Mother Nature will do her best to return things to the status quo. Plant a large garden and you will have more venison than you can eat. Goats are not native to this region, coyotes are. Eagles, hawks, owls, raccoons, possums, foxes and bobcats are also native here. Chickens are not. They will all eat your chickens, given a chance.

3. If you want to eat meat, you have to kill something. It's brutal and unpleasant. Blood is blood, you best get used to it. Warm guts smell bad. They smell different, depending on what you just killed, but they all smell bad. The first time you shove an arm elbow deep in warm guts and blood to tear loose some connective tissue, you are hard pressed to not lose your lunch. It begins to get a bit easier when you have a chilled carcass with the hide peeled off, and the pieces you hack off start to look like something you would buy in a grocery store, but the lifeless eyes continue to stare.  

4. Intellectual deprivation. This was unexpected. It doesn't become apparent right away because you're so damned glad to be away from the crush of humanity and the demolition derby approach to getting around. Land is inexpensive in certain regions for a reason. Living elsewhere is much easier (so far). In this case, the regional economy has been in decline for 70 years. The population has declined nearly 80% from its peak, and the brain drain is close to 100%. Most anybody with ambition left long ago, and most youth leave, never to return. It is not hard now to understand why, historically, tribes of 1 to 5 haven't fared well. You need some minimum critical mass of human interaction to be able to survive psychologically, and some degree of specialization and division of labor just to cover all the bases. For those of you considering it, the 'survivalist bunker' approach to dealing with the future would be ill advised. Social interaction is not just something nice, it is an imperative.

Not to be too glum, on the upside there is sunshine, fresh air, fresh meat, eggs, milk, cheese, honey, fruits, nuts, vegetables, abundant wildlife and beautiful scenery. You don't need to 'go to the gym' to stay in shape either.

To peer into the future and see nothing beyond an endless re-run of this hard living is enough to put fear and dread in most hearts. I find it increasingly difficult to believe that dispossessed cubicle dwellers will be able to adapt physically or mentally.

In this setting it is not hard to envision the emergence of a tradition where you take each seventh day off from the grunt work and get together with your friends and neighbors just to celebrate the fact you are still breathing. No deities or voodoo required. Then just for fun, throw a big feast every solstice and equinox and invite everybody. Wait... haven't we been there before?

People tend to think of a 'land of milk and honey' as something idyllic and easy. This land of milk and honey is accessible, tangible and real, but it comes with strings attached.

21 comments:

tim nelson said...

i agree with mark, about strings attached. i grew up in a neighborhood and been on a "back to land" path for 14 years. and i find more and more strings as i get older. it's just a process of learning all the way around. the more time there is to adapt the more survive, and the less time to adapt the more die and suffer. through hunger, disease, violence, too many consecutive mistakes. in my opinion

Scott Supak said...

We have good friends and neighbors who do this for a living:

http://nectarhillsfarm.com

Fun times!

Anotherplayaguy said...

orisRe the intellectual loss, how much does one give up by living in a city or town where there is more intellectual activity? It's not all Plato and Shakespeare in the cities. No, there are gangs, pollution, fear, greed, etc. I made the change 7 years ago and wouldn't go back for anything. Kansas, probably a bad idea, but I'm east of Redding, CA in the foothills across from a neighbor who enjoys poisoning dogs. Redding, as in Redneck, CA. But as long as there is an internet (not much longer, I suspect), there is plenty of intellectual fun to be had. As well as the porn, the stupidity and the Kardashians.

Lance Michael Foster said...

I was brought up hunting and fishing. Guts, blood, stink, been there, know about it. Working out one's relationship to one's meat is a tricky thing. For wild things, it's a matter of realizing they had a free life, we all die, and you thank them for their life ...and thereby yours. I have more difficulty killing something that knows you and trusts you, and watches you as you skin it and gut it. Now to me that is a lot harder.

Knowing how to be poor is a skill. I am sure if you ask and give them something, poor people will be glad to share some poverty skills. I can help you out, having been poor all my life. Whaddaya got to trade me for some "po' folk lessons"? ;-))

druncle said...

I do like ClubOrlov so, its too bad that its like waiting of a Stanley Kubrick movie to come out, takes time. Having grown up in the Appalachians in the 70's I saw 20% of what it would be like to really return to a sustainable life. It is inevitable, but not I nor anyone I know wants it, it will be hard. I kick the can down the road and hope the ceiling wont fall in on me before I am a drooling mess. I have not children, partly because I have always seen the writing on the wall. Remember, be positive, that glass isnt 9/10th empty, its 1/10th full :-)

Neil said...

I suppose it's good to be realistic and accept a shorter lifespan from here on out if you are not wealthy.
My cubicle flight back to the land went badly it seemed, divorce, treachery and crooked people ended up owning my tractor and other farmstead equipment. But as someone just said, being poor takes some practice and adjustment. Now I'm glad that I survived those tests to get me ready for the real crush of austerity and the interpersonal skills it requires to deal with desperate and difficult people. I now teach some of my skills to permaculturists, and am in contact with many farmers in a region that is particularly bustling in that regard. Instead of working for myself, I do gifting a lot where I give gifts and work away to people that I think have a good thing going and need something I can do. One example is a young couple with a farm that they are getting off the ground. Their barn was shocking people, and they asked me to have a look. I came back with what it took to fix the problem, and also installed a reliable lighting system so they could do what they do much easier. I got many of those parts by helping another farmer friend clean out his barn for some woodwork, getting paid in used but good electrical parts. And food. With my network, I get some jobs here and there to pay my money bills, and like Dimitri I rely mostly on bikes for transit. I tend to rely on free food a few days a week when I visit my farmer friends for gossip and to find out what people need. No future right?
My protection against the ravages of age is to give as much of my knowledge to folks in their 20's and help any way I can. I also am studying soil and other technologies so that when my skills get fully developed, they should keep me in demand as my muscles and joints slow down. When they finally can't get me to where I need to be, I suppose that'll be the end. No retirement expected.

WENDY BANDURSKI-MILLER said...

the thing about *going back to the land* that bother's me the most is the lack of real knowledge about HOW to do that is being lost at a staggering rate. While there are pockets of people that really do understand the situation.. they are far between.

The intellectual drain is significant. I am living it and if it wasn't for the internet or books (remember them? Those small rectangular paper made objects filled with information that don't need electricity to work)... i would probably be a different person than I am now. But then I have kids... and therefore that is a constant impetus to learn new skills.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Regarding item 2) on Mark's list of realities:

A pretty comprehensive counter to those problems is to keep at least one shepherd dog. Not any old dog, though; a real shepherd dog: A Coban Kopek (Anatolian Shepherd Dog) from Turkey, or a Kuvasz from Hungary, or a Caucasian Ovcharka, or a Pyrennean, or one of the many other closely-related regional breeds of this ancient family of breeds.

Take very great care NOT to choose a puppy from a non-working line genetically-ruined by the compulsively-in-breeding dog-show/pedigree-breeder community. These good folk are not, for the most part, into preserving the working-quality and the extraordinary good health, hardiness and thriftiness of these dogs in their ancestral landrace condition, whatever they may say. Though some few of them DO manage to do both combined. Like Erik Conard, for example:

http://www.luckyhit.net/anatolia.htm

Others keepers of shepherd dogs, OTOH, keep them strictly for work. See Robert Denlinger's website, for example:

http://www.denstarfarm.us/Index.htm

(click on the image of the big, inscrutable dog; he's a Caucasian...)

These practical US farmers will introduce you to the extraordinary benefits, both material and spiritual, of keeping -- no, you don't KEEP them -- of living with shepherd dogs; and of the life-saving stock-protection, family-protection, home-protection work that they will do for you, with a dedication that has to be experienced to be believed, 24/7/365, till death.

horizonstar said...

How about going back to the land you already have? It takes about 4,000 sq. ft of passive solar greenhouse to support a full spectrum bioaquaponic food system that runs on an occasional load of manure from a dairy farm, solar energy, and a trickle of electricity. It will produce enough vegetables and fish protein to feed a family of three with a little surplus to trade to the dairy farmer for manure. If you can fend off the zoning Nazis, any large suburban lot in a temperate zone can become nearly as self sufficient as a dirt farm in Kansas. At least until Final Collapse hits and you have to start burning the furniture to stay warm in the winter---.

MaxBerlin said...

Everyone has their own unique diverse solution as if it's a new religion. The high hurdles we set for death - heaven, being with old friends and family members - we also seem to set for simplicity. Maybe we're all better off accepting simplicity for what it actually is.

As the author wrote.

Max

kevin said...

I live in SE Kansas. Yesterday we had a hail storm. Last month the low temps often fell below freezing. Last summer we had a solid month of 100+ deg heat. Sometimes it doesn't rain for a month, and when it does there's often a tornado that comes with it.

The small town people around here aren't all nice, simple country folks. There's crime, rapes, an occasional murder, etc.

This is not the land of milk and honey. It's the land of reality, and despite it's harshness, it's probably one of the better places to survive.

There's a good reason country people move to the city. Farming is terribly difficult and your only reward is survival. City life is often easier and more rewarding.

But city life is only sustainable with a strong economy and moral society. When those foundations break down, the city decays.

Our economy is now a Plutocracy / Fascist wreck. Half of Americans are actually Socialists, voting themselves entitlements paid for by the rich (productive) and massive govt debt. Soon Atlas will shrug.

I believe there is a greater justice in this world. All those lazy, inner-city people who have lived off the hard work of others will soon have to face the consequences of their actions. Hail storms, tornadoes, extreme hard work and the thing they despise the most - personal responsibility.

Finally, thank you Dmitry for sharing your thoughts and experineces. You have a great blog. Also, I believe Ron Paul is our last hope.

Warwick said...

Permaculture innovation makes the drudge esier but agreed - community is everything - much of what we are can be reduced down to the interactions we have with others

Syd O said...

Great post. I've spent the last three years relocalizing, trying to build community, and learning how to live in the dirt. I'm still a cubicle monkey but am acquiring the hard skills and endurance to work the dawn to dusk days that are many times required working the land.

Neil, love the gift economy stuff. That's what it's about.

vera said...

Mark, the answer to lack of people to talk to is to build a village. Why do Americans think they need to reinvent everything? The world is still full of well-functioning villages where companionship is to be had. Living close to neighbors while traveling out to the fields is the way to go... not the other way around.

Good luck, you are ahead of many of us! (And btw, many hands make light work. As the Amish say.)

Lee said...

Beings that I am a country boy, I could write a book on this subject, but somebody else already has. It's called Dakota by Kathleen Norris.

I also didn't inherit a farm so I had to travel. Even lived in New York City for awhile.

I think it was easier for me to adapt to city life than it is for the city people I have known to adapt to country or small town life.

The cities were fun. Kinda like going to the circus. But I went back to small town life. Small town hippy life that is.

David said...

Yep, all the talk about a "transition" to a sustainable local food and energy economy is incredibly optimistic, IMO. The reality is well described in the OP and thats now, while support from the technological and information economy is still available. Not only have essential skills been lost but people have lost the ability to live together in a shared environment with limited resources. It takes a village to survive for very long but I'm not sure you could find 100 villagers who would be able to share the same goals and burdens anymore. Cheap oil has spoiled us so badly that there may be no going back to simpler times, only more chaotic and violent times.

Gardengate said...

Good read Mark, we too have been trying to find others who are willing to work for food. Think the "green washing" has done a disservice to those who came from simplicity, though I certainly don't feel poor. I've learned more skills in the four years I've been home full time than I learned in my 30 year work history. Too bad I didn't realize earlier that the real work starts at home.pslin

Repent said...

I've reseached farm land. The lowest price is in the range of $350,000 away from all other people and services. As you get closer to small towns and services the price of land rises. My cubicle job doesn't afford the capitial to even consider becoming a farmer. In my forties, daily hard physical labour does not look appealing. There is also the wildcard of climate change looming- not a pretty risk for being a farmer.

Unknown said...

The main problem that keeps repeating itself with most post dystopian writings is how things only seem to get worse.

Everything I have read so far, like in "A World Made By Hand", is how the New World comes with a huge sign that reads: "Do Not Disturb -- or Else."

All the truly hard work, like farming, is done in the background and everybody is a gentleman or gentlewoman living mildly after the rest of us have all died off.

In my opinion, the future comes with too many strings attached.

rancherruss said...

Good article... It's interesting to see my way of life from another's eyes. I personaly have to wonder what will happen to the "cubicles" when the looming crash happens. As a rancher in South Dakota i have to feel bad but also hope they dont come out to my part of the country. I happen to enjoy the piece and quiet were i live....

sharkman said...

i live in north central ks in a college town surrounded by farms. there is a big(er)city feel here but we are still "in the country" bout half n half here of city folk and country folk, guess who will survive the longest?? i do hope that your farm isnt with in 50 miles or so from burlington, if (when) the nuclear reactors here go then most of the farm land will be usless for miles around it. one thing i think that is overlooked is the amount of colleges that have active working nuclear reactors on campus, not one mention of this from anyone im aware of, i think its a serious issue that is being overlooked. thoughts anyone?? alot of people overlook states such as kansas as a good place to survive but i think that is a great place to hunker down, the available farm land here is staggering and will be especially so after collapse, lets be real people not every farmer and farmstead will survive collapse, there will be lots of empty land and empty farms and i also believe that farmers with hundreds of acres will "team up" with good honest knowledgable people to help survive and sustain themselves and families durning collapse, if we dont hang together we will hang seperatly. yes we get tornados here but no farmer or landowner worth his salt dosent have a tornado shelter or underground bunker stoked with provisions, not saying i do but i live in the city and am very very poor and have a family to take care of right now, after collapse though...who knows. you have unique situations in every climate/region of the US, earthquakes on the west coast, hurricaines on the gulf/east coast tornado/snow storms in the midwest/mountain states, geography is unique everywhere, if you dont prepare for your unique climate that is foolhardy at best weather it be tornado shelters or building earthquake resistant structures, everwhere will be unique so dont dis Kansas just because we have tornados. lots to offer here in the heartland of America, and the breadbasket of the world, im tellin ya kansas is a good place to survive, no better or worse than anywhere else and i believe perhaps more so. thoughts anyone??