In the final years before the “meltdown” dozens of apocalyptic, millennialist, rapturous and downright strange pseudo- and epi-religions arose as human ethnic, racial and national groups attempted to “bargain with the divine” to ‘save’ themselves from the impending agonies.
One example of such “god-bothering” was the religious group that arose in Texas (of all places!) and posited that because oil was the millennial deposit accrued from the deaths of millions, billions of plants and animals, that it was actually soul. That is, the black goo was what remained of the souls of the creatures from which it had formed. And they believed that the burning of this soul goo was causing (and I quote here from one of their pamphlets) “a rift in the psychic sheath surrounding planet earth, sending ripples of agony throughout the planetary sphere and a howling cry of pain into interstellar space.”
They also posited that gold was the spirit remains of these same creatures. It was surprising how many flocked to this rather recondite sect (and many other cults and sects, equally odd and innovative) in the final years when it seemed that mankind (what a misnomer) was struggling to escape the infernal triumvirate of fossil fuel induced climate change, militarized political repression and waves of starvation.
The triple-play meltdown of the arctic ice, the oceans and numerous nuclear facilities shut them all up. The nuclear facilities are no doubt still moving through various states of decay and disaster, the poisons spreading. The last bat, indeed.
We are lucky to be here far from any of them.
This valley. This last valley.
The people who live here call it Alpha, implying a new beginning. Although it seems to me to be merely a drawn-out ending. Nevertheless, what they have achieved is remarkable.
I stumbled in here ten months ago, damn near dead from frostbite and exhausted by “survivor games” in the foothills over the other side of this range. Over there those with the guns take from those who lack them – the full bore Mad Max scenario of all our worst nightmares. I lost my son. He decided to join a militia and use the survival skills I taught him in a pseudo-paramilitary outfit that he felt offered him a better chance of survival than just ‘tagging along with dad”. My wife died long ago, died of radiation exposure – she was one of those who had struggled on on-site to try to contain the inevitable. Her memory is with me to my dying day. I loved her so. Six weeks from first exposure to a horrible death – life and death measured in sieverts.
They get up early here. They work as long as there is light. Their evenings are lit by candles and diodes fed by hundreds of small-scale solar power collector/generators. Last year they harvested all that they needed from the valley floor in repeating cycles of growth, harvest and recycle. Nothing is wasted. Everything is either a foodstuff or an input for biodiversity and permaculture.
The children collect earthworms for the worm farms and the super abundance of earthworms that ensue are taken outside and given back to the soil, the dark liquid that collects in the bottom of the worm farms is mixed with grasses and leaves to form a compost rich in aroma and potential.
Spores are regularly spread throughout the forest and a surprisingly large bounty of mushrooms of many kinds is harvested – they form a substantial portion of their diet.
The winter was long and hard, a time of little outdoor activity but of much crafting: the making of clothes and tools (here there is someone skilled in stone flaking – a neolithic art valued once again).
The sun that passes over the valley each day, the rim of mountain peaks that surround the valley, create an ideal growing area protected from the strongest winds. So far the rain, though abundant and heavy, has not overwhelmed the crops carefully nurtured. They have been lucky so far. They harvest successive crops of grasses to feed their livestock. Each time the grasses are cut (with scythes, by hand) the ground nesting birds come to raise another brood. These people do not eat the eggs of the wild birds. Their every daily effort is bent on enriching the biosphere in which they live. You might almost describe their “putting back” as their religion. Beehives abound in hollow logs, tadpoles are harvested from every pond and carried in cups and cans to places where they have dug – by hand – other ponds. They are in the process of “seeding” the entire valley with every form of life that they can interact with. And because of their efforts the valley redounds with bird song, hawks and eagles soar overhead, the deer move in increasing numbers through the woods, the bears and wolves wander unmolested on the higher slopes: natura naturans.
Their food is the seeds, nuts and fruits they harvest, the fish they catch and dry, the milk they get from their goats and cows, the cheese they make themselves, the eggs they get from their chickens and quail. All are now, primarily (except for the eggs and fish), vegetarian; a kind of revulsion to the eating of meat has spread through this post meltdown community – and a revulsion to the accumulation of the ever increasing amounts of manure that would ensue if too many animals were kept here. They recognize this as something that would eventually choke this valley’s ecosystem as it has choked river systems, meadows, farmlands and the oceans across the planet.
However, they do recognize the nutritive value of meat for the older members of the community, the menstruating and pregnant women, the smaller children. All the meat is minced, however, and patties of meat and kebabs are eaten in the communal dining hall. No one wants to face roasted carcasses, bones, sinew on their dinner plates. Needless to say, a few dedicated souls skilled in butchering and rendering take care of this rather squeamish approach to the eating of meat. The wildlife is considered sacrosanct and the deer and the pheasants and the numerous other winged and four-leggeds are left completely alone.
Horses and donkeys and a few precious oxen provide the bulk of the heavy labour but as all of the dwellings are earth houses sunk ten feet deep into the ground and covered with several alternating layers of logs, moss and earth, there is very little “heavy construction” going on. And fires are lit sparingly.
Culture has become sharing. Those with medical experience teach first aid, those literate teach poetry, writing, reading, those skilled in the practical arts teach woodcraft, the making of clothes, pottery, the musicians share all they have. In a sense it is a mini-Renaissance, in that everyone is learning everything from everyone else. All gatherings, formal, semi-formal, informal, involve the passing on of skills. There is very little time spent in reminiscence, the re-hashing of old mythologies, politics, history. There seems to be a tacit acknowledgement among the adults that what is past is past and best left behind. There is a refreshing focus on moving forward not looking back. Those who were doctors, teachers, carpenters, crafters, continue to do what they were trained for but everything is scaled down, pared to its essence – a true attempt to pass on ‘what is of most worth’. The children and the environment surrounding are the paramount concerns – and of course the ongoing struggle to feed everyone.
Because of this, as you move through the community, you hear storytellers, singers, musicians, lectures in first aid and the various virtues of different kinds of wood, cord, leaves, roots, hides. It is a community of teachers and learners – a culture of essence.
There is one story that has arisen – no one seems to know who wrote it – but if any tale could be considered ‘the ur-myth’ of the community it is this short parable. There are two versions and they are identical in every aspect except one: if a girl or woman is telling the story it is related using feminine pronouns, and if a boy or man is speaking he uses masculine pronouns. It too, is a pared down message conveying essence, and everyone has memorized it.
The community accepts all religious and philosophical inclinations and all points of view are tolerated; however, as most have realized that what they once believed has led to the bankruptcy of 21c civilization and to this remnant of sanity in a global pandemonium, most acknowledge that essence is best, and that this story reflects a valuable essence. I offer the story here in its “female” form; if you were reading the “male” version of the story, it would begin thus: “He came home from work one day; it had been a tough day and he was feeling tired” and would be called Heaven & Hell for Boys.
Heaven & Hell for Girls
She came home from work one day; it had been a tough day and she was feeling tired. The weather had been lousy, the evening commute a chore, the food she prepared for her dinner was a disappointment.
She thought of herself as a good woman, she tried always to do the right thing. She watched the tv news and felt sorry for all the people involved in all the terrible things that happened each day in far-flung corners of the world: famine, earthquake, flood and war. She prayed regularly and she hoped that all would be well someday.
But the far-off day of peace never seemed to come and she often felt that her life was going nowhere. She lived a quiet life, but always felt that something was missing. She never felt that she was ever really ‘on her way’. Her disappointment in what she had made of herself sometimes overwhelmed her. She sometimes suspected that her life could have been so much more.
Putting her plate in the sink after dinner, she washed up, read the paper – more bad news – took a shower, laid out her clothes for work the next day, poured herself a glass of milk and went to bed. The usual routine, the usual time, she was a creature of habit.
That night she had a terrible vision. She was walking toward a cave entrance, and then she was moving inside the cave. At the back of the cavern there were two huge metal doors studded with bolts. As she approached, the great gates began to swing open a line of red light forming between them as they parted. She felt a blast of hot air and heard the sound of far off screams and shouts.
She felt herself moving into the tunnel, sliding down a hallway; she couldn’t stop herself, wanted desperately not to move toward the distant sounds but couldn’t help herself. It was as if the floor, sloping downward, was slippery, she couldn’t stop herself sliding toward what she now saw was distant flames.
A tall, beautiful angel with arcing white wings stood on one side of the tunnel. As she approached the angel held something out to her. She took the object and realized that it was a wooden spoon with a long handle.
Puzzled, she kept on moving forward and then came to a halt at the lip of an enormous cavern spread out below her, far bigger than any space she had ever seen before, entire cities could be built inside that cave. Her ears were assaulted with a roaring cacophony of screams and shouts and she realized she looked upon Hell.
Thousands of human beings were seething around an enormous fire in the center of the cave. They were climbing over one another, people were being trampled as they all tried to get closer to a gigantic cauldron that was bubbling on the fire. Flames roared all around the perimeter of the cavern, too, licking up the walls to enormous heights. Stalagtites and stalagmites were everywhere, in many places they had fused together forming enormous pillars up which the flames crept.
The people were bathed in sweat, their skin was flaking and peeling from the heat, red and shiny where it had been scalded by the flames. They all were intently focused on only one thing: the enormous cauldron. They fought each other, biting, punching and scratching, ever clutching their spoons as if their very lives depended upon them.
She saw that those who triumphed over the others, the strongest or the most ruthless, climbed to the rim of the seething cauldron, seemingly oblivious to the flames that seared their skin and smouldered in their hair. As soon as they had climbed and clambered to the rim they reached in with their long handled spoons to eat whatever was bubbling inside.
But it seemed their spoons were too short, for they drew them back empty from the depths of the cauldron. Every now and then one would draw a spoonful of liquid and try to swallow it; inevitably, the food would fall from their spoon before it reached their mouths. They would then roar with frustration and shove their arms back down into the cauldron. Sooner or later they would tire and another soul would push or pull them from the rim of the enormous cauldron; the usurper would then try his or her luck at obtaining some of the precious, seemingly unattainable food.
The noise was incredible, a howling mob screaming with hunger and anger and despair. Steam rose from the mighty cauldron, a cauldron so big you could have sailed a ship across the bubbling surface. The whole cavern was filled with steam and flame and the smell of sweat and fire and hatred.
The people kicked and punched each other, gouged out eyes, tore skin with their fingernails, used the spoons as weapons in their attempts to climb to the top of the pile of struggling human beings and reach the rim of the cauldron to strive, fruitlessly, for the hot food that lay simmering within it.
The woman woke suddenly from her sleep, bathed in sweat and full of fear. Realizing she was back in her humble bed in her humble room, she gave thanks that she was not in that terrible hell. She got out of bed and knelt down on the floor, full of thankfulness and asked in her prayers that all human beings currently alive be spared the horrors of hell, and that all those souls now in hell be forgiven and allowed to ascend to the heavenly heights.
She knelt motionless in prayer for quite some time and then, wearily, she crawled back under the covers and fell into a deep sleep.
This time her dreams revealed a flower-strewn, sun-dappled meadow across which a gentle river quietly meandered. Moving along the banks beneath the shade of willow trees she saw irises and bulrushes and yellow flag waving in the breeze. Beneath an enormous oak tree, she saw another angel with magnificent white wings gleaming in the sunshine. The angel offered her a wooden spoon with a long handle and pointed toward a grove of trees ahead.
A chill of fear assailed her, for even in her sleep she remembered the earlier vision of hell and the thousands of souls fighting to feed themselves from the enormous cauldron.
As she approached the grove of trees she noticed fruit and blossoms hanging from the boughs: apples and apple blossom, pears and pear blossom, cherries ripe and red clustering among pink blooms, peaches, figs, almonds among startlingly bright blossoms, oranges, lemons and limes. All blooming and fruiting together on the same tree at the same time.
Her spirits rose somewhat at the sight but she still felt apprehension as she tightened her grip on the long-handled wooden spoon. She saw a gap in the trees, a natural archway formed by fragrant jasmine. She moved forward and entered an enormous natural amphitheatre, a gigantic glade so large she could just barely see the misty blue trees on the further side, the arc of the nearest trees marched away to either side into the blue hazy distance.
In the centre of the meadow another gigantic cauldron soared up to a great height. The vessel had holes pierced in the side and a pale golden liquid poured forth in countless cascading waterfalls. The liquid fell into pools lined with a thousand species of flowering plants and flowed away in all directions in rippling streams.
Thousands of men and women and children clustered in groups, lying or sitting on the grass, near the pools or on the banks of the streams. Birdsong filled the air and some of the people had musical instruments upon which they played while others accompanied them with sweet songs carried on melodious voices.
No one was climbing to the cauldron, but every now and again someone would stroll to a stream or pond and dip their spoon into the streams of nectar that flowed from the cauldron, then they would carefully walk back, cupping their other hand under the spoon so that not a single drop fell on the ground. As she looked closer she noticed that this activity was ongoing and everywhere. There was a constant movement of people from the groups to the streams of liquid and back again.
And she then noticed that, upon returning to their group, nurturing so conscientously the spoonful of food, they carefully and reverently held the spoon to the mouth of another soul whose lips parted and who took the spoonful graciously provided.
None were feeding themselves; they were all feeding each other.