This guest post is authored by John Rember
I know how to harness a horse to a plow. I know how to do rudimentary blacksmithing and welding, pack a horse, shoe the same horse, and use a crosscut saw and broadaxe. I can fall a big tree in a desired direction, wind permitting. I know how to trap beaver, coyote, and muskrat, build a tight log cabin with hand tools and indigenous materials, kill and skin and cut up elk and deer, build log fences, irrigate, milk a cow, and take care of most domestic animals. I can stay safe and warm while camping in below-zero temperatures and start fires in wet weather. I know wilderness medicine, and can treat gunshot wounds and broken legs.
The usual refrain to this sort of bragging is, “I am W-O-M-A-N” but instead I’m a man, yes I am, one close to sixty, and except for tree-falling — by chainsaw now — I haven’t used those skills in twenty or thirty years. I don’t miss them. They were obsolete when I was born, and I wouldn’t have them except for my father, who, when I was three, quit his life as a hard-rock miner and moved to Sawtooth Valley in central Idaho to become a fishing and hunting guide and trapper. When the guiding business faltered because of the destruction of Idaho’s salmon runs, he contracted to build hiking trails in the Sawtooths, where motorized equipment wasn’t allowed. We had to use draft-animals and hand tools.
I spent several adolescent summers staring at the wrong end of a plow-horse, peeling virgin hillside out and down to make new trail. We were eighteen miles from a road, and our camp had been packed in on horseback. Our stove was a campfire. Our shower was a five-gallon blackened steel bucket with a showerhead welded to its bottom. We ate fish, venison, and, after the fresh greens ran out two days after we hit camp, canned peas and green beans. And lots of potatoes. Food and fuel were not big items in our budget.
All through these summers, shiny B-52s flew over, dropping aluminum chaff, reminding us that in a matter of a few hours, we could live in a wilderness considerably larger than the one in which we were working.
When I got old enough to work for the government I became a wilderness ranger and firefighter and refined my horse-packing and hand tool skills. I got my EMT certificate. I ski-patrolled at Sun Valley in the winters.
My jobs paid my college tuition. After college and a short career as a medical writer I began teaching writing. During my first college writing workshop, a student turned in a story about growing up lonely on a cattle ranch in eastern Oregon, fifty miles from any highway. In subsequent conversations my student and I discovered than neither of us would get on a horse again if we could help it, and that both of us didn’t see much value in rejecting the comforts of civilization. Both of us preferred industrial culture to its alternative, however romantic that alternative might appear to people who hadn’t lived it.
We discovered other things in common, but it was our differences that caused us to marry each other a few years later. Julie’s a sweet young thing and I’m an old fart, and between my caution and skill and her energy and enthusiasm we’ve made it seventeen good years together this August. We like the hell out of each other, is one way to put it. We laugh a lot, is another.
For seventeen years, we’ve had two salaries and no kids. We paid off the house and cars and put one of our salaries into savings. A few years ago we quit our jobs, sold our house, bought annuities, and moved to a house I had built on my parents’ property. We turned our jobs into long-distance endeavors, and the hit we took in income was less than the reduction we made in expenses.
Neither of us had grown up middle-class but we ended up there — thanks to those nonexistent kids — and while we live modestly, we want for nothing. We also, except for a two-month tourist season every summer, live more or less alone. In the winter there are maybe a hundred people in our surrounding hundred square miles. In winter, we don’t go outside unless it’s above twenty below. Some days we don’t go outside at all.
We can’t have a garden because it frosts most summer nights. We don’t watch broadcast TV but we do have broadband and a Netflix subscription. We don’t have a giant pickup like most of our neighbors, but we do have two vehicles that get decent mileage. It’s 140 miles to Costco.
We finish one book and pick up another. We both ski and lately, instead of buying gold or silver, we’ve been heading to Indochina in November, and only coming back when the days start getting longer.
A few years ago I started writing a monthly column for a paper in Ketchum, Idaho. For some time I’ve been an après moi le deluge kind of guy, although for me the deluge wasn’t nuclear, biological, or chemical. I just thought, based on my teaching experience, that secondary education was getting worse and worse in this country, and that a tsunami of over-enthusiastic mouthbreathers — eruptus adenoidae erectus in the literature — was going to make it impossible for civilization to function. More and more it looked like morons were the only people running things, mostly because they were the only people with simple enough world-views to want to.
Anyway, I called my column End Notes, because I could Google “End of Days” and have my pick of four million or so apocalyptic stories. Jesus was riding in at the head of an angel hit squad, or a 14-mile-long asteroid was about to crash into Los Angeles, or the Star-spawn of the Dread Cthulhu was rising out of the Marianas Trench. These things were fun to write about and fun to make fun of, but after a year or so the Doom of the Month Club turned mean.
Jim Kunstler’s The Long Emergency and Jared Diamond’s Collapse were the books that started me researching and reading Richard Heinberg, Dmitri Orlov, John Michael Greer, Guy McPherson, and William Catton. Charles Hugh Smith graphically educated me on economic collapse. All these writers are to the future like blind men are to an elephant, each grasping their sure bit of truth. My late arrival to the party allowed me the benefit of multiple perspectives on the beast.
But it was the credit crisis of 2008 and the subsequent frenzy of incompetence by our elected officials that finally convinced me that Julie’s and my carefully-chosen annuity-and-Internet-fueled rural niche, the one that was supposed to last us the rest of our childless lives, wasn’t going to work out as planned. Our savings would become worthless. The electricity would go out. We’d freeze to death in the dark. Marauding hordes would shoot us as we escaped the house they had set on fire.
I made jokes. “I’m in favor of marauding hoards,” I said. “Let the food, gold, and ammo come to us.”
When I taught at a liberal arts college in the Years of Clinton, one of my colleagues in the psychology department was married to a survivalist. She would lecture all day on the basal ganglia, the limbic system, and the amygdala, and then go home to her husband, whose reptile brain had caused him to bury a Quonset hut in the backyard and stock it with freeze-dried food, fuel, a chemical toilet, and thousands of flashlight batteries and tens of thousands of rounds of ammo. Mean girls on the faculty used to speculate that their sex life was better than their conversation.
I won’t discuss Julie’s and my sex life, but there’s nothing wrong with our conversation either. When I spoke with Julie about my concern that our savings might not outlast our lives, that we might need a stash of freeze-dried food in the crawl space, that I was thinking about purchasing a small arsenal for under the bed — nothing special, you understand, just an M-14, a 1911 .45, a StreetSweeper 12-gauge (I hadn’t even mentioned the RPG or the mail-order smallpox or the black-market suitcase nuke) — she said, “If the shit comes down, I don’t want to live. I don’t want to live in an overshot world in the midst of a die-off, even if we have a fully-equipped bunker to live in, even with solar power, even with a greenhouse, even with weapons that could depopulate this valley in the midst of tourist season. Life would not be worth living.” I paraphrase.
It’s a shock when the person you love tells you they don’t want to make it through the coming bottleneck. It’s depressing, because it means that one serious and solid option is to become a mute victim of circumstance. But it also sparks a round of critical thinking, and out of that critical thinking comes the realization that in the long run, we’re all mute victims of circumstance.
Having an old pump shotgun and fifty rounds of buckshot will do you just as well as an arsenal, unless you want to give your reptile brain full control of your life. When the marauding horde shows up at your door in the form of ten-year-olds with M-16s, the best you can do is take out a couple of them before they get you. That will discourage them from attacking your neighbors. But numbers and mobility and psychopathy are going to be on their side. In the end, it’ll be like tourist season, only with ruder tourists.
A world run by evil men and dangerous boys, is what we’re talking. A social structure suited to a maximum security prison. A place where women are commodities. The female character in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road kills herself in the first few pages, and for the rest of the book the women are dead or meat-on-the-hoof or slaves. Absent rule of law, it’s not good to be queen.
During the build-up to the bombing of Serbia, several of my female colleagues at the college grew unutterably depressed by NPR reports on the use of rape as a tactic in civil war. What one of them said has stuck with me for fifteen years: “The Serbs have proven that the Nazi Holocaust was not an aberration of history. It was a function of masculinity.”
In the summer of 2010, NPR news is still unutterably depressing, this time because of the gusher in the Gulf and serial rapists who masquerade as banking executives. British Petroleum has proven that Minimata Disease, Bhopal, the asbestos industry, the flattening of Appalachia, the current mass extinction, resource wars, the destruction of the middle class, and depleted uranium munitions are not aberrations of history. They’re functions of masculinity.
It’s an intuitive judgment, but I’ll make it anyway: post-collapse, a woman won’t be running Thunderdome.
The old Schopenhauer joke goes like this: Socrates said that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living. Two thousand years later, Schopenhauer discovered that the examined life wasn’t worth living either. Actually, the phrase Schopenhauer Joke is a joke.
The non-joking part of the joke is that when people say that a kill-or-be-killed life after industrial collapse won’t be worth living, some of them have reached that conclusion after carefully examining the implications of collapse for their own lives and the lives of the people around them.
Antique skills are looking more and more useful these days. I’ve been inventorying harnesses, horse-collars, hand-tools, wood-stoves, nails, traps, and fishing gear. I bought a .22 rifle with a scope, because these days my eyes can either see open sights or a target but not both. I’m buying lightweight camping gear. I’m buying a new chainsaw because I’d pay $25 or five pickled beaver-tails for a liter of saw gas rather than go back to a misery whip to cut firewood. Chainsaws will be around long after cars.
I know from my early life in this valley that people can live through the 40-below winters here, even in the absence of electricity. You have to keep a stove going 24/7, and that takes cords and cords of firewood. You have to be able to kill and store enough food to get through the winter. It’s a lot of work just to stay warm, and you don’t have much time left over for the finer things in life. But there will be books, and candles, and home-made soap, and in the summer, edible wild plants. Small joys, but joys. If the tourists leave you alone.
Yesterday an executive of the company Julie works for called us up from the lodge at Redfish Lake, a local 6-mile-long glacial pool and said he wanted to take us for a boat ride. He picked us up in a gorgeous 20-foot aluminum jet-boat powered by a Ford 360 cubic-inch V8, a motor that would get 9 miles per gallon when it was installed in a F-150, half that in a jet-boat. It had leather upholstery, cupholders, a convertible top, a depth gauge and thermometer, and because it was a calm afternoon, we could cruise at 50 mph on the glassy swells of the lake. Eat your heart out, Thorstein Veblen, I thought.
We roared by the shore, leaving canoeists and kayakers struggling to stay upright in our wake. We shot between fishermen and their bobbers, and violently rocked a little houseboat that was anchored in a peaceful cove.
I wasn’t driving. I silently drank an oaky Australian chardonnay and waved at people in other powerboats, checked out the sunbathers who looked like so many whales stranded on the beach, ate hummus and chips and hung my head out into the clear cool wind. When we had finished weaving around the lake, the odometer indicated we had gone 22.5 miles. We had just burned enough gas to cut enough firewood for three winters.
We said good-bye to our host. As the boat roared off, the beach, the trees, the lake, the water-skiers and sunbathers and the boat’s owner and his wife flashed sepia in my eyes, became an old cardboard-mounted photograph, cracked and frayed at the edges and full of people long dead.
Here’s what I think the elephant looks like: the electricity will go out first in New York. Gasoline will disappear from the Atlanta suburbs before anywhere else. Food riots will happen in west Chicago. In Idaho and Utah, the Mormon Church will provide a measure of cultural stability and community, even for us Gentiles in its midst. Our lights will go on at night because of Northwest hydro and wind power.
The brutal repression of mobs by military force will happen elsewhere, but we’ll be shown what it looks like. The counter-revolution will be televised, and we’ll have a government consisting of military men dressed as civilians. But no one will mistake their iron fists for velvet gloves. Think Thailand. Think Burma. Think Zimbabwe. Think Gaza. Think turning off the power in winter as a political measure. The United States of America will exist as a pretense, but God help anyone who demands the protection of its Bill of Rights.
Order will be restored, but rationing will be the order of the day. We will have patriotic scrap-metal drives. Victory gardens. The Reader’s Digest will come roaring back from bankruptcy. We will party like it’s 1943. It will not be good to have much of anything worth stealing. Gold will become a crime again.
Old age will get us in the end. Julie and I both have Alzheimer’s in our families, and one of the benefits of collapse is that neither of us will end our days witless and drugged in a nursing home. The saying goes that there are no pockets in the shroud, which usually is taken to mean you can’t take your money with you, but after taking care of a parent with Alzheimer’s, I’ve realized there are also no pockets for memories, stories, relationships, or selves.
So I won’t mind getting back to hard physical work, because it generally kills you by age 75, no matter what you eat. As a medical writer researching heart disease, I discovered that hard-used hearts simply wear out. As a cement worker between bouts of teaching, I saw what the old guys on the crew looked and acted like, and how many ibuprofen they ate. Steroids aren’t the only reason that pro athletes die young. One day I’ll be top-packing a mule, and I’ll just fall over.
The problem is, of course, Julie. I keep offering to buy her a Ladysmith .38 and a thousand rounds of ammunition for her birthday, but she refuses to learn to use it. When we first got together I made jokes about her throwing herself on my funeral pyre, which caused her to joke about running off with the young strong guy who had built the funeral pyre.
But lately she’s been saying, “We’ll ride this life for as long as we can, and then it’ll be on to the next great adventure.” She has a faith in an afterlife that I don’t have. She has a faith in human decency that I don’t have. She knows that life is worth living until it isn’t. She has more courage than I have, and I suspect that because of that courage, she’s more conscious than I am.
Seeing the world through her courageous and conscious eyes, I’ve realized that my old skills won’t last forever, that our world could end tomorrow, that my scientific-material prejudice limits my perceptions, and that if I can unfence my perceptions and forget my prejudices, it’s all an adventure. I realize that Julie will do well for herself until she doesn’t. That’s a good thing.
This essay is permalinked at Island Breath.
John Rember has been teaching writing for thirty-five years. He’s the author of two collections of short stories and a memoir. His next book, to be published in 2011, is MFA in a Box, a Why-to-Write Book. You can read more about him and his writing at johnrember.com.