Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Adam's Story: Twilight in Learyville

Last week’s Archdruid Report post introduced five themes likely to be primary factors shaping the deindustrial future before us. It’s easy to talk about such things in the abstract, but harder to make sense of them as a lived reality, and it’s this latter step that has to be taken to understand their impact on our world. For this reason I’ve picked up the toolkit of narrative fiction again. Each of the next five essays will be preceded by a fictional account of one person’s journey through a world shaped by the themes I’ve mentioned. The story begins in the rural Pacific Northwest sometime in the second half of this century.

*****************

Adam stepped out onto the cracked blacktop and moss of the parking lot, blinked in the glare of the westering sun. Habit made him reach back with his one good hand to close the door, but he caught himself, let the hand fall. No point in closing things up now; winter wasn’t far, and the place might as well be useful to the bears.

One of the beneficiaries of that act gazed blindly down on him in concrete effigy as he crossed the parking lot. It had a sign in its paws saying Learyville Motel – a neon sign once, though the tubes got a coat of white paint once electricity went away. Another bear, chainsawed from a fir log, stood on its hind legs by the motel office. The bear had always been Learyville’s mascot; the school team had been the Bears, back when there was a school team, or a school for that matter. It would just be the bears’ town now, though.

He stopped at the highway’s edge, tensed himself against memories that pushed the limits of his self-control, then settled his pack on his shoulders and started west. Still, the memories came surging up, blinding him. He thought of Learyville the way it was when he’d been five or six, when most of the houses had families in them and cars still came roaring down the highway in long lines on their way to campgrounds and fishing spots and the ocean beaches. Things had been better still before he was born, so the old folks said, back when gas was so cheap you could drive all day on twenty dollars, and the Learyville Motel had its Sorry – No Vacancy sign lit up every summer evening. Still, the town seemed crowded enough in his childhood; he’d had playmates in those days, and you had to be careful crossing the street.

That was before the war, of course. Once war came, gas rationing canceled most vacations, and a dozen young men from the town went off in uniform, leaving their family’s windows decorated with blue stars that turned gold one by one. Nobody wanted to talk about that, and Adam had to ask his father what it meant, one night when just the two of them sat in the motel office. Afterwards, staring into the night from his bedroom window, he thought about the people he knew who wouldn’t be coming home again. The image that came to mind was an old blanket the moths ate full of holes one summer. The moths had gotten into Learyville, too, and a cold wind was blowing through the holes.

The moths hadn’t finished with the town, either. The summer Adam turned eleven, when the fighting reached Mexico and people stopped talking about the war except in worried whispers, the bridge on the road down to Southport collapsed under the car on the way back from a trip to the grocery store. He didn’t remember a thing between the lurch of the bridge giving way and the hospital room where they told him his mother was dead. His right arm was a mess, and they’d never been able to afford the therapy that would have fixed it, so a mess it stayed.

When the armistice came a year later, most of Learyville buzzed with talk about how soon the good times would be back, but Adam’s father slumped back in his overstuffed chair and told him they were whistling past the graveyard. Though gas stayed rationed and the economy lurched from crisis to crisis, a trickle of tourists came down the highway again, but even that shred of hope turned against the town. Nobody ever figured out which tourist brought hemorrhagic fever to Learyville, but three months afterward almost fifty people were dead. Other epidemics followed, but that first one left gaps in Learyville’s fabric that nothing afterward could patch.

Adam shook his head and kept walking, but the houses he passed stared back at him with empty eyes like so many skulls. That blue one had been Joe and Edna Williams’, before she died of the hemorrhagic fever and he drank himself to death; the green one back there was Fred Kasumi’s before he died and his sons left for the city in search of work; the brick one next to it had been the Dotsons’ since Learyville was a logging camp, and old Marge Dotson lived there for years after everyone else in the family was dead or gone, tending her chickens and her garden until he found her lying face down in her asparagus bed one morning.

Across from the Dotson house was the Hungry Bear Café, with the stripped and rusting shells of a dozen cars still in the parking lot. Those broke Adam’s pace, though he made himself keep going after a moment. Those cars didn’t belong to tourists or locals. They started arriving one or two at a time in the years right after the war, full of young people convinced, like their hippie grandparents before them, that going back to the land was the wave of the future. Some of the newcomers moved into empty houses on the edge of town and tried to farm for a few years before loneliness, sickness, or the thin acid soil that had defeated the original homesteaders in the 1800s drove them back to the city or straight to the Learyville cemetery. Few came to farm and fewer stayed long; better land could be had close enough to urban areas to provide a market for cash crops.

No, most of the ones who came had a different dream. They parked their cars in the café parking lot, paid for one more civilized meal, and then headed out into the woods, convinced they were destined to found the tribal societies of an age about to be born. Those who spotted Adam tried to talk him into coming along; their excited gestures and bright eyes lit up a grand vision of life in the wilderness in harmony with nature, walking the hunter-gatherer path. The first few times he’d gone back to the motel with his head afire, and his father had to sit him down and explain exactly what would happen to a bunch of city kids who thought nature would welcome them with open arms. He’d been right, too. Some of them came stumbling back out of the forest months later, starving and shivering and riddled with parasites. Others never came out at all, and Adam got used to finding their bones in the woods when he and his father went hunting deer in the hills outside of town. For them, nature had opened not her arms but her jaws.

One group left something else behind, though, and that was what made Adam halt and then push himself onward outside the café. There had been six of them, three boys and three girls, none of them much older than Adam himself, and they’d gone into the woods with whoops of laughter early one summer. Three of them died in the usual ways as the forest patiently tested them to destruction; the three survivors came back as winter came and the rain changed to sleet, two of the boys carrying one desperately ill girl. The Prices took them in; the boys struggled back to health and fled in someone else’s car as soon as they could, but the girl, Sybil, stayed.

She had some kind of relapsing fever – probably from a tick bite, Vinny said, though he wasn’t sure, and by then there were no doctors within reach. She had no family and nowhere to go, so the Prices gave her a home, and she returned the favor by caring for them when she was well enough. She and Adam found their way into a relationship within a few weeks. It wasn’t love, or even sex, so much as the raw loneliness of a town that by then had only a dozen residents. Still, lying in each other’s arms or sitting by the Price’s fireplace, they talked about marriage, imagined a future when the tourists came back and the two of them ran the motel. When the fever finally took her on an icy February day four years later, Adam walked down to the river and thought long and hard about jumping in before he turned and went back to the motel.

By then the cafe was open only on Saturday nights, when the last handful of locals gathered to share a meal and play cards by firelight, and the motel was all closed up except for the manager’s home and two rooms. Another war was going by then, a civil war this time, and the only visitors were government draft agents scrounging the countryside for anyone fit to carry a gun. Adam got used to the way they’d look at him, size up his crumpled arm, and reluctantly decide that he wouldn’t earn them their bounty. Finally even the draft agents stopped coming, and life in Learyville became a round of waiting, never very long, for the next death.

Call of a bluejay shook Adam out of his memories, and he turned around. Afternoon was turning toward evening, but no smoke rose from the chimneys of any of the houses he’d passed and no light shone from the windows. The general store, post office, and gas station that anchored the western end of town were tumbling in on themselves, half overgrown already with blackberry vines. In the distance, a stray gleam of red sunlight hit the big concrete bear in front of the motel, made it glow like an ember about to go out.

He drew in a deep breath, reviewed the things he’d packed: all the clothes he owned that hadn’t gone to holes yet; blankets for sleeping; a cooking pot, tinder, and the flint and steel he’d learned to use once matches stopped being available; some useful tools; a tarp for shelter, and rope and stakes to put it up; bandages and a bottle of the herb tincture Carol Price used to make for wounds; down at the bottom of the pack, a ring that had been Sybil’s, and the six best asparagus crowns from Marge’s garden, on the off chance that he’d find a place to plant them someday. He had a good sturdy knife on his belt and his father’s revolver in his coat pocket; the one thing he didn’t have was a destination, but that didn’t matter much, not just then.

Tears pushed through then, and dampened his face. There had been one last grave to dig this afternoon, this time for his father; one more hole in the fabric; that was over now, and so was Learyville. He turned west and started down the highway, leaving the town to the bears and the dark trees of the forest.

68 comments:

Bill Pulliam said...

Didn't Adam have a sister who went off with one of those Messiah guys? You remember, she found him on the internet around the time the fever first showed up in Seattle, back before the phones went dead. Real striking guy, talking about new Jerusalem and all that, you could almost understand why she might think he had all the answers and knew the way out of this mess. Seems I remember there were a lot of guys like that for a while. Didn't some of them get involved in the civil wars, too? Wonder what became of all them. Pushing up daisies just like the rest of 'em, I reckon. Nobody talks much about that stuff around here anymore.

Asturchale y Chulo said...

I am leaving my comment on this particular entry but I actually intended to give my opinion on the whole of the blog.
I like what I have read so far. It made me think "Hey, I have had something like that going round in my head for some time" and then "yeah, but lacked the talent to actually shape it into a consistent text".
Being an Archdruid, I would love to send you my essay on the traces of Celtic beliefs in North Spain folklore. If you are interested, just ask: my email is horsthofff@yahoo.com
I would love to believe that bears will survive the desperation of a hungry humankind in an over-crowded post-industrial world, but I am afraid nothing heavier than rats will survive our final quest for food...provided that rats will find holes deep enough to escape us!

Bill Pulliam said...

My first thoughts were that your tale is both too bleak and happening too fast. But on rereading, I appreciated that you had set it in a particularly vulnerable place: an isolated town with a tourist economy and poor options for farming. And you make references to places where circumstances are different, some of which we will doubtless see in later installments. Towns like this would be the first to lose electric, phone, and maintained roads in a decline, for the same reasons they were the last to get them.

So is Adam's "toolkit" he takes with him perhaps a metaphor for the toolkit we need to assemble as a society for our own unknown future?

John Michael Greer said...

A reminder to all -- it may be hopelessly old-fashioned of me, but I'd like to request that people who have something to say here do it in civil language, and posts that get into egregious insults will be deleted. 'Nuf said.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I think I've already riled up the apocalypse lobby enough for now, don't you think?

Asturchale, I think that'll vary from region to region. Here in the US, the vast majority of people don't have a clue how to put bear on the menu -- if anything, it's likely to be the other way around. If the crisis ahead of us was primarily a food crisis, I'd be worried about the bears, but as it is, in the industrial world, food shortages aren't likely to become a major factor until we're well down the curve of decline. More on this in next week's post.

And yes, I'd be delighted to read your folklore paper -- I'll be in touch shortly.

Bill, exactly -- his part of the story focuses on the mechanisms of depopulation, and I figured the best way to do that was to show their impact on a particularly vulnerable community, modeled on places I know in the Northwest.

Is Adam's toolkit a metaphor? Nah, it's a plot engine. Stay tuned!

FARfetched said...

Great story, I hope we find out where Adam ends up in the next installment. The only quibble I'd raise is that I'd expect Adam to leave at sunrise instead of sunset. Sunset is time to set up camp, gather firewood, start the fire and get supper going while there's still enough light to see by. Besides, he'd want to get as many miles between himself and Learyville before he had to stop for the night.

FARfetched said...

Oh, and I kind of wish you'd left "al's" comment up. I still want to say something about it.

I've been expecting things to go pear-shaped since 1974 or so — still am — but it hasn't happened yet. Doesn't mean it won't, but we've muddled along from problem to problem so far. Heck, we might manage to keep muddling along, ending up with a best-case scenario where we bring down power and population gradually. People will disappear through brushfire civil wars as the country breaks up, limited starvation, suicide, many by medical conditions they can no longer have treated (diabetics, heart patients, cancer, diseases), flooding....

SInce Bill jumped in with a side-story and didn't get whacked for it, so will I. :-) What happened to the Chinese invasion? During the civil war here, didn't they try to assemble a fleet to shift their population problem here? Did a typhoon take them out, or did they make it but too weak from starvation to defend themselves (let alone attack)? Both?

John Michael Greer said...

Farfetched, granted, if Adam had been thinking he'd have waited until the next morning. Chalk it up to stress. Besides, it made for some great imagery. But you'll certainly be seeing more of Adam; he'll be the viewpoint character throughout this series.

As for the deleted comment, my experience is that it's a waste of everyone's time to try to reason with trolls, so please don't.

The muddling-through future you've suggested is actually fairly close to the scenario I consider most likely, so long as you factor in the results of political breakdown and localized disasters of the Katrina variety. Most civilizations fall that way, bit by bit.

As for your Chinese invasion, you guys gotta lay off with the crystal balls. Except it's not quite an invasion, and it's not from China. If you glance back to the original post that launched this series, you might notice that the second of my five themes is migration. More in the next episode...

Bill Pulliam said...

So does anyone else hear Iris Dement singing "Our Town"?

jason said...

As for the deleted comment, my experience is that it's a waste of everyone's time to try to reason with trolls, so please don't.

My experience is that with reason, respect and a lot of patience, a troll can become a great part of an online community. Granted, it's a fairly intense process, but I've seen it happen.

RAS said...

Hmm, migration huh? When does the fleet of refugees from Japan land? ;-)
-Rebecca

tRB said...

JMG,

First, I enjoy the style of your fiction-writing. How long have you been honing this skill?

Second, is it too much of a leap to assume that this series of stories is in the same universe as the previous "Christmas" series?

Third, this story about future depopulation of rural areas reminds me of a very real and ongoing one in the western Great Plains.

A couple of years ago I read a book called "Where the Buffalo Roam", by Anne Matthews, about the economic and demographic changes happening west of the longitudinal limit of significant rain. She tells the story through two sociologists from New Jersey, Frank and Deborah Popper, who saw this transformation as early as the 1980's. They have proposed that in place of the failed attempt at agriculture and ranching in that part of the Midwest, the prairie should be restored and the buffalo brought back.

The book goes into some detail about just how these towns empty out, and how those who remain deal (or don't deal) with their situation (which includes some hostility toward Eastern university-types).

A preview of the book (with additional resources):
http://books.google.com/books?id=2qq9XIcIkWkC&pg=PP1&ots=VLQ56nJ5NM&dq

A more recent newspaper article which covers some of the basics:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2001/04/22/MN39309.DTL

An article by the Poppers which looks at the uses of metaphor in geography and regional public planning (hey, it's narratives again!):
http://www.gprc.org/buffalo_commons_popper.html

Loveandlight said...

Hmmm, how did I know your next post would be a story where a bunch of white kids who endeavor to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle end up getting eaten by bears or something? I must be turning psychic. I knew buying that book by Sylvia Browne would be a great investment! :-D

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, of course you're right that detrollification is occasionally possible. The problem is that even when it works -- and it doesn't always -- it takes plenty of time, and I simply don't have that.

I work 12 hour days writing, and I've got my duties as head of AODA and my work on the Takelma Language Project (helping to resurrect a Native American language here in southern Oregon) to take care of as well. Writing and managing this blog has to be squeezed into spare time after those are dealt with. So I pretty much have to leave the cause of troll reform to those who've got the spare time and patience.

Rebecca, I see you've joined the crystal ball brigade. Stay tuned!

TRB, I wrote my first novel at the age of eleven. (Mind you, it was pretty awful.) I spent most of two decades trying to break into print in science fiction and fantasy, and failed abjectly. The praise that's come in for my narratives here has been quite a surprise to me -- I figured they would be hack work useful to communicate certain points, nothing more. But I'm glad you enjoy them.

As for the relationship between this set of stories and the world sketched out in the three Christmas posts, I haven't the least idea as yet -- I know the basic plot of the five parts of "Adam's Story," but the setting will show itself as the writing proceeds. That concrete bear at the motel, for example, was a complete surprise to me.

I've been watching the situation on the Great Plains since the middle 90s; to my mind, it's at least as big an alarm bell as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What we're seeing, I think, is the failure of white settlement in the inland West. There, at least, Jason's arguments have quite a bit of strength; the Great Plains and mountain West aren't ecologically suited to cereal farming along European lines. The sooner the plains in particular are turned over to a nomadic pastoral economy, the better for everyone, and it might as well be buffalo -- perfectly suited to the ecosystem, and tasty, too.

Loveandlight, actually, I'd planned on having some neoprimitivist cougar chow put in an appearance since I first envisioned this series about two months ago; in particular, Sybil was part of the backstory from the beginning. Mind you, I knew people in Seattle who loudly insisted they were going to head out into the woods the way the people in the story did, and only the fact that they were all talk and no action kept them from a similar experience.

One of the things a lot of people don't know about the evergreen forests in the coastal Northwest is that they are surprisingly barren in ecological terms -- most of the soil nutrients get leached by the rain. That's why the First Nations all through this part of the world lived at the water's edge, got most of their food from the rivers and the sea, and told hair-raising stories to their kids about the cannibalistic monsters that lived in the deep, dark, spooky forest.

John Michael Greer said...

All -- much as I hate to, I'm going to have to follow Bill's advice and start moderating comments. I'll get new comments up as quickly as I can, and anything that isn't a waste of bandwidth will be sent through. My apologies to all those who have been perfectly civil all along, including -- especially including -- those who disagree with me; thank you for bearing with the slight delays involved.

Danby said...

One of the things a lot of people don't know about the evergreen forests in the coastal Northwest is that they are surprisingly barren in ecological terms

There are few monocultures as mono as the Douglas Fir forests of the Pacific Northwest. Much of it has less diversity than a cornfield. Mile upon mile with a few dozen, at most, plant species. Maybe a dozen species of mammals, and most of them rodents. It isn't until you get to a clearcut or burn that you show some real diversity. And the fungi, molluscs and arachnids, great variety of them.

jason said...

Looking over your story, I can see some of the primary reasons why most people assume that the wilderness is so inhospitable. You mention tick bites, which plague the civilized hiker, but it's a little known fact (because the context is so rarely relevant) that ticks go after humans with impaired immune systems. They can smell it in the blood. A human who does't eat grain, doesn't get ticks.

This is very common, I've found: people challenge hunting and gathering on the grounds that it does poorly answering the problems that only civilized people have, the results of civilized diets and civilized habits.

I'd be shocked if people going off to be hunter-gatherers ever became the kind of trend you've outlined here, anywhere. But if it did, I think it would go more or less the way you've outlined. That's why I've urged people not to run off into the woods, but to learn primitive skills first, maybe pick up some permaculture as a stepping stone, and rewild themselves as a process, not as a sudden event. Hunting and gathering doesn't have to be hard; it's what we evolved to do, and what it takes--hunting, fishing, hiking--are things we do now and call it a vacation. But you absolutely do have to know what you're doing. Run off into the woods without knowing what you're doing, or worse, do it alone, and you'll just wind up dead.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, thanks for a good ecological summary. One of the consequences of the distance that's opened up between most human beings and the natural world since the industrial revolution is that the difference between lots of living things, and lots of edible and useful living things, is not always easy to spot. There's a huge amount of biomass in a coastal Douglas Fir forest, but as you've pointed out, it's pretty much all Douglas fir, and that wasn't even on the list of famine foods among the local First Nations (though the new spring tips make a great tea).

Jason, I don't doubt that ticks have their taste preferences; mosquitos make a beeline (mosquitoline?) for people with inadequate vitamin B in their bloodstream, for that matter. Still, First Nations lore here on the coast, from long before grain became an item of diet, treated wood ticks as a known problem and had treatments for bites. So I'm a little skeptical of your claim as a universal rule.

But I applaud your insistence that people who want to pursue the hunter-gatherer life need to know what they're doing, and I'm glad you don't see neoprimitivism as a mass movement -- though I suspect you may be facing an unpleasant surprise. I've known far too many people who've read one too many books by John Zerzan and Daniel Quinn, and who think of going back to the hunter-gatherer economy the way so many hippies thought of going back to the land. One of the things every movement has to contend with is its own potential for debasement at the hands of popular culture.

Bill Pulliam said...

but it's a little known fact (because the context is so rarely relevant) that ticks go after humans with impaired immune systems. They can smell it in the blood. A human who does't eat grain, doesn't get ticks

Man, I'm really gonna have to ask for some references on this one. Living in major-league tick country here I've never noticed that anyone is spared the onslaught, or even remotely close to it. Now, I can believe that the tick-borne diseases themselves might be more likely to be debilitating to someone with a pre-existing weakness, but the ticks themselves actually being able to sniff out the poor immune systems really seems kinda far-fetched. It sounds maladaptive too -- why would ticks want to feed on the weakest hosts, instead of the strongest ones with the richest blood chemistry? A tick's primary evolutionary goal in biting is to feed and produce eggs, not spread disease. This claim sounds like it belongs in the same league as "Mosquitoes don't bite Indians" and a lot of other romantic ideas I've heard that sound lovely but just aren't true.

On second thought, I guess I can imagine that someone who is so carbohydrate-deprived that they go into major reeking ketosis might be repelent and unpalatable to ticks. But this is hardly a healthy person.

Citations to support this fact?

Loveandlight said...

Another change that those who would purssue rewilding must make is in their hearts and minds. That's why despite being a sympathizer with neoprimitivist ideas on the best way for humans to live on this planet, I have a hard time envisioning myself rewilding. I've invested so much energy into conforming to the minimum of what civilization expects of me so that I can more or less survive in its context, that as destructive as I know it is, civilization has its gleaming metal hooks sunk deeply into my mind. You don't need to like or even respect civilization to be thoroughly "pwn3nd" by it.

jason said...

Still, First Nations lore here on the coast, from long before grain became an item of diet, treated wood ticks as a known problem and had treatments for bites. So I'm a little skeptical of your claim as a universal rule.

Well, they'd know better than I would. Here on the east coast, you never hear much about ticks, which seemed perplexing, given the current problems with Lyme disease. Then I found out how ticks (at least here) go after people who eat cereal grains, because of the sugar in their sweat, and it made a lot more sense.

Even so, you'll note that the First Nations people over in your neck of the woods didn't all die from tick-borne diseases, either. They had very effective means of dealing with that: antibiotics and a whole ethnomedical tradition. Likewise, realistically, anyone running off into the woods who doesn't know even that much is really exceptionally dumb. I suppose this might be the Darwin Awards parade going through Learyville, but these certainly aren't people familiar with very much of the primitivist literature I've read. Krakaeur's Into the Wilds makes the rounds commonly precisely to illustrate the importance of not running off before you know what you're doing. It's not a hard life, but it's not very forgiving of ignorance, either.

jason said...

Man, I'm really gonna have to ask for some references on this one. Living in major-league tick country here I've never noticed that anyone is spared the onslaught, or even remotely close to it.

I'm afraid it's something I read a while ago, and didn't take note of. But I have no doubt that would be your experience--but how many people do you know who don't eat cereal grains? Cereal grains are so basic to our diet that it's very difficult to do it without, well, already being a hunter-gatherer.

It sounds maladaptive too -- why would ticks want to feed on the weakest hosts, instead of the strongest ones with the richest blood chemistry?

As I recall, it was more an attraction to all the sugar. Non-cereal-based diets tend to reserve nearly all the sugar for the brain. Hunter-gatherer diets break down carbohydrates for energy not from dietary carbohydrates, but animal fat.

John Michael Greer said...

Loveandlight, a very good point. My guess all along is that what's in our heads and hearts is going to have a much bigger impact on the shape of the future than how we produce our food, but in a materialist culture, of course, that's hardly a popular idea.

Jason, the northwest coast has more in common ecologically with New Zealand and Tasmania than it does with your neck of the woods, so I wouldn't be surprised to find major differences in arthropod behavior! It's useful to remember that what works in one ecosystem may not work in another.

Of course the First Nations here didn't die off from tick bites; deer don't die out from deer ticks, either, though a certain number of them get infections and die each year. I suspect one of the reasons the tribes here scared their children with stories of monsters in the woods was to keep them out of wood tick territory.

Mind you, the First Nations here still had very high infant mortality in precontact times -- the Salish tribes used to say that children still remembered their homes in the otherworld until they turned 5 or so, and got homesick easily -- and endemic intertribal warfare and the side effects of a slave trade that ran up and down the coast from Alaska to California also kept population levels down. Parasites of all kinds were a problem, and famine was common -- look in any book of Pacific Northwest native ethnobotany (I can recommend some if you're interested) and you'll find a wide range of famine foods that could sometimes eke things out, at least for the young and strong, until the salmon came back.

But that's one of the reasons I chose the Northwest for this set of stories -- just as Learyville is in a vulnerable economic position, it's in an unforgiving ecology. Especially so nowadays, when the fish runs and shellfish beds, the basis for survival in precontact times, have been wiped out by overharvesting.

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, that depends on the hunter-gatherers. Down here acorn meal and camas root, both high in carbohydrates, provided a larger share of calories than animal (or fish) fat.

John Michael Greer said...

One more comment on the tick question. It would be easy to test Jason's hypothesis -- a lot of people these days are on the Atkins diet, which bans simple carbohydrates, especially cereal grains. Asking Atkins-eating outdoors types whether they get tick bites might settle the matter fairly quickly.

jason said...

My guess all along is that what's in our heads and hearts is going to have a much bigger impact on the shape of the future than how we produce our food, but in a materialist culture, of course, that's hardly a popular idea.

Of course, how you get your food will determine a lot about what's in your head and heart. :)

I suspect one of the reasons the tribes here scared their children with stories of monsters in the woods was to keep them out of wood tick territory.

That could well be, and really, that can be even more effective than knowing how to distill a good antibiotic from plantain.

Parasites of all kinds were a problem, and famine was common -- look in any book of Pacific Northwest native ethnobotany (I can recommend some if you're interested) and you'll find a wide range of famine foods that could sometimes eke things out, at least for the young and strong, until the salmon came back.

The Pacific Northwest had a pretty unique hunter-gatherer tradition, too. Not too many other places where you find hunter-gatherer chiefdoms. They tended to suffer from a lot of the same problems usually associated with civilization, due to the complexity they were able to achieve, but since the source was geographically fixed, they couldn't expand and so managed a uniquely sustainable level of complexity.

Jason, that depends on the hunter-gatherers. Down here acorn meal and camas root, both high in carbohydrates, provided a larger share of calories than animal (or fish) fat.

The most important thing to remember about hunter-gatherers is the huge diversity that term encompasses: essentially, everything that isn't growing food. That's going to vary enormously from one region to the next. There's some correlation here with latitude, but there was a study by Loren Cordain, et al, that showed that on average, hunter-gatherer diets were predominantly from animal sources, even in fairly equatorial latitudes where the proportion was closest.

But that's also why when you get into rewilding circle, the word "local" pops up so often, almost like a mantra. The essence of hunting and gathering is a relationship with a particular ecology. You don't get to remake it in your own image the way a farmer does, so there's quite a few exceptions to every trend.

jason said...

One more comment on the tick question. It would be easy to test Jason's hypothesis -- a lot of people these days are on the Atkins diet, which bans simple carbohydrates, especially cereal grains. Asking Atkins-eating outdoors types whether they get tick bites might settle the matter fairly quickly.

That would do it, but you'd need people who've really been on it, no cheating, for quite a while--at least several months. It can take a while for the full effects of the body chemistry to change.

Bill Pulliam said...

Jason --

Ah, OK, back in my days in academia we used to refer to that citation as "(I Read It Somewhere, 1987)." That's at least a notch above "(PIOOMA, 2007)." Several problems I see with the hypothesis, still. Much of North America, including most of the eastern woodland tribes, were within the region of Maize culture, hence they did have grains as a significant carbohydrate source, didn't they? Additionally, organisms adapted to feeding on the blood of wildlife are not likely to have adapted to seek out high-sugar meals. These are much more readily available by sucking the sap of plants. If your evolutionary hosts are wild deer or canids, you are "designed" to live on the blood of animals that rarely, if ever, saw cereal grains. Finally, lots of people in recent years have gone on extreme cereal-free high protein diets. Having been in the woods with some of them, they get the ticks and chiggers just like the rest of us. I also have to wonder WHAT east coast you live on where people don't worry about ticks. My experience is that urban people in the east are utterly obsessed about ticks, and afraid to even go in the woods lest a single tick bite strike them down. Your experience sounds like a blissful escape from this anoying fixation.

The present tick-borne disease issue is like so many others, I think. Because of global mobility, many populations of people have come into contact with diseases that they are evolutionarily and immunologically naive to. This is what makes epidemics.

neighbor said...

JMG,

I'd be interested to learn of the PNW native ethnobotany texts you mentioned...

thanks!

RAS said...

Hey John, can I ask how old Adam is? I got the feeling that he was a fairly young man, but I could of course be wrong.

I have another question as well. You've now given a picture of how you see things unfolding the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. Will you be writing stories about the other major areas of the country -the Southwest, the Southeast, and the Northeast? It would be kind of fascinating to see that pulled together.
Thanks,
Rebecca

Ahavah bat Sarah said...

trb: go and get the latest issue of scientific american. There is a serious suggestion that, seriously, the midwest is depopulating anyway so it would be nice to make several hundred thousand square miles a "prehistoric large animal reserve." I'm not kidding.

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, you comment:

Of course, how you get your food will determine a lot about what's in your head and heart. :)

You'd have a hard time finding anyone from a traditional tribal society who would agree with you on that one -- a very modern, civilized, scientific materialist attitude! And here I am, arguing the case of civilization, and saying that no, what's in your head and heart is primary... ;-)

Also:

The Pacific Northwest had a pretty unique hunter-gatherer tradition, too. Not too many other places where you find hunter-gatherer chiefdoms.

It's actually a slight variation on a pattern found all over the Pacific rim and islands, in areas as ecologically different as New Guinea, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Alaska. The northwest coast First Nations didn't do much in the way of horticulture, as most of the others did -- at least not until they got potatoes from white trappers, and took them up with gusto -- but the same mixed economy based on mastery of oceanic resources underlay the same sort of stratified society with clans, slavery, warfare, and monumental architecture. My guess is that in the days before agriculture took over most of the richest ecosystems in the Old World, that pattern was much more common there than current theories suggest.

Bill, you comment:

The present tick-borne disease issue is like so many others, I think. Because of global mobility, many populations of people have come into contact with diseases that they are evolutionarily and immunologically naive to. This is what makes epidemics.

Bingo. In a post some months ago, I argued that this -- alongside the spread of antibiotic resistance and a collapse in public health funding -- was likely to be a much more potent factor in the Long Descent than most people realize. Have a gander:

Public Health: Slow Motion Disaster.

Neighbor, the ones I've used most are Erna Gunther, Ethnobotany of Western Washington (Seattle: U. of Washington Press, 1945), for my old stomping grounds, and Barbara Davis and Michael Hendryx, Plants and the People: The Ethnobotany of the Karuk Tribe (Yreka, CA: Siskiyou County Museum, 1991), for the area I live now.

Rebecca, he's around 20. Any older, and he would have had the common sense to stick around until the next morning. ;-) As for the rest of the country, well, have you read my three previous stories? They're set in the Mississippi valley; each one is followed by an interview with the main character. You can find 'em here:

Christmas Eve 2050
Christmas Eve 2050: Q&A
Solstice 2100
Solstice 2100 Q&A
Nawida 2150
Nawida 2150 Q&A

Ahavah, aren't they suggesting importing African wildlife to approximate the Pleistocene fauna? I'd heard about that. That would certainly be entertaining.

Twilight said...

I spent roughly 25 years living with Eskimos and Indians in northwestern Alaska. This included doing cultural research into traditional subsistence lifestyles. Based on my experiences and research, I can attest to the fact that making a living off of hunting and gathering is extraordinarily difficult requiring a wealth of knowledge and skills. Virtually all the non-natives I have known who tried the "back to nature" way of living failed, some tragically. The Native informants I worked with considered it crazy for anyone to try living off the land by themselves. They worked in groups to meet the challenges of nature.

Hurricane_Gia said...

One more comment on the tick question. It would be easy to test Jason's hypothesis -- a lot of people these days are on the Atkins diet, which bans simple carbohydrates, especially cereal grains. Asking Atkins-eating outdoors types whether they get tick bites might settle the matter fairly quickly.

I doubt that would be a definitive test of the hyposthesis, since the meat these Atkins-types have been eating was itself grain-fed. I forget the actual quote, but Omnivore's Dilema states that in bloodtests, it is impossible to tell the difference between someone who ate the grain directly or someone who ate the animal that ate the grain.

RAS said...

John, yes I've read the Christmas series. That's why I was asking about the areas you hadn't covered -the Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest. (The Mississippi valley, unless I've got my geography wrong this early in the morning, is in the Midwest right?) I'm just curious if you have any plans to write about those.
Thanks,
Rebecca

(P.S. If this comment is duplicated, I apologize. It took several attempts to get it to go through.)

jason said...

I also have to wonder WHAT east coast you live on where people don't worry about ticks. My experience is that urban people in the east are utterly obsessed about ticks, and afraid to even go in the woods lest a single tick bite strike them down.

I said that people here don't worry about ticks? No, they're utterly obsessed with them. Never heard it as much of a concern of the Native people that used to live here, though.

You'd have a hard time finding anyone from a traditional tribal society who would agree with you on that one -- a very modern, civilized, scientific materialist attitude!

It is a materialist perspective, as in cultural materialism, but my study of traditional, tribal society has shown a general lack of the dualistic notions that would draw that kind of line. Abram's Spell of the Sensuous illustrates quite well that sense of simultaneous materialism and idealism that I've generally found in animist belief.

The northwest coast First Nations didn't do much in the way of horticulture, as most of the others did...

That's what makes them so unique. The others you point to are horticultural societies primarily, not foragers. You expect villages, ranked society, and chiefdoms among horticulturalists. But to find it among foragers is something exceptional, precisely because of the energy brought in by the salmon runs.

My guess is that in the days before agriculture took over most of the richest ecosystems in the Old World, that pattern was much more common there than current theories suggest.

I'm sure wherever a fluke of geography allowed the build-up of sedentary hunter-gatherers, societies like the Kwakiutl followed. See Sungir, as well. But it takes a fairly rare constellation of geographic and ecologic factors to allow that kind of concentration of energy. The difference being that what foraging allows as an isolated fluke, agriculture creates systemically, and compels to grow.

Ahavah, aren't they suggesting importing African wildlife to approximate the Pleistocene fauna? I'd heard about that. That would certainly be entertaining.

And perhaps unnecessary. Look at how horses took off after they were introduced by the Spanish, precisely because they had previously existed in the Americas and simply filled their old niche. We've got plenty of zoos and eccentric ranches to seed such populations as the map opens back up. Even without a directed rewilding campaign, I fully expect prides of lions to stalk the elephant herds of Kansas.

Loveandlight said...

So if Adam is 20 (technically still a teenager), and there were still cars on the road when he was a very young'un, I would imagine the story is taking place in the early 2030's at the latest. And of course, you messed up his right arm so that he wouldn't end up as canon-fodder.

John Michael Greer said...

Twilight, I don't have the sort of real-world experience you have, but yes, this is my understanding as well.

Rebecca, of course you're right -- though the Christmas stories do have some incidental details about the rest of the country (including the suggestion that there isn't much Southeast left any more, due to rising sea levels). I don't have any particular plans to do fiction about the rest of the country; among other things, as a lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, I don't know the rest of the country very well. Perhaps you should try your hand at it yourself!

Jason, I have to admit I was very unimpressed by Abrams's claims -- his method, to my mind, smacks of the Procrustean bed. As for sedentary foraging cultures, they're actually not too uncommon in Old World archeology -- you might want to have a look at the Natufian culture of the eastern Mediterranean c. 9000 BCE, or its equivalents in Egypt around the same time. But this is getting way off topic.

Loveandlight, I expect there to be cars on the road, albeit in decreasing numbers, until around 2050 or so; the same logic I proposed in my post Cycles of Sustainability suggests that we can expect price volatility and demand destruction, paradoxically enough, to extend the period in which some amount of gasoline will be available.

As for Adam's arm, that's partly to keep him out of the army, and partly to suggest the collapse of what's left of affordable health care.

Loveandlight said...

Another thing that occurs to me about post-collapse epidemiology: Syphillis will once again become a deterrent to sexual promiscuity. It can't be a simple matter to produce the major antibiotics that can beat the syph.

Bill Pulliam said...

I said that people here don't worry about ticks? No, they're utterly obsessed with them. Never heard it as much of a concern of the Native people that used to live here, though.

Ah OK I misread your comment.

aren't they suggesting importing African wildlife to approximate the Pleistocene fauna?

Oh please no please no please NO NO NO NO NO!!! The LAST thing we need is more introduced species and all the unpredictable things that could lead to! The ones we already have are wreaking plenty of havoc already! Why not just turn the plains into a nuclear test range while you are at it. At least we have some idea what kind of destruction THAT catastrophe would unleash!

Anyone who thinks this is a good idea should spend some time reading on such topics as starlings, kudzu, fire ants, purple loosestrife, russian olive, tamarisk, etc. Or look up the wholesale upheaval in vegetative community structure that happened in the california grasslands when european species forced out american ones. Or the just-beginning displacement of native mourning doves by introduced eurasian collared doves. The list goes on. The species that once roamed our plains are NOT the same as the species that now roam in Africa. Those african critters don't belong here anymore than feral cats and norway rats do.

ARGH!

jason said...

I spent roughly 25 years living with Eskimos and Indians in northwestern Alaska. This included doing cultural research into traditional subsistence lifestyles. Based on my experiences and research, I can attest to the fact that making a living off of hunting and gathering is extraordinarily difficult requiring a wealth of knowledge and skills.

Mind you, that's in the Arctic. The Inuit lead a particularly difficult life among foragers. They're making it work in a part of the world where no other approach works at all.

Virtually all the non-natives I have known who tried the "back to nature" way of living failed, some tragically.

That's to be expected.

The Native informants I worked with considered it crazy for anyone to try living off the land by themselves. They worked in groups to meet the challenges of nature.

Absolutely. Going alone is suicide. Humans form tribes for a reason. This is why I've been urging primitivists to pay as much attention to the social skills of the tribe as they do to technical primitive skills.

Jason, I have to admit I was very unimpressed by Abrams's claims -- his method, to my mind, smacks of the Procrustean bed.

Oh, no, I certainly can't say much for his methods. It's really more of an integrative work for me, rather than really defending an argument well. But I did get a great deal from it in terms of making sense of all I'd been reading in traditional stories and myths, and what ethnographic details I'd read. The "spirit" that his book relates really helped me make sense of it, and it's something I've since found again and again in traditional cultures.

As for sedentary foraging cultures, they're actually not too uncommon in Old World archeology -- you might want to have a look at the Natufian culture of the eastern Mediterranean c. 9000 BCE, or its equivalents in Egypt around the same time.

Those were the cultures that transitoned into the Agricultural Revolution. Very, very few foraging cultures ever took up farming voluntarily; the rest had to be conquered and absorbed. That still seems pretty rare to me.

Asturchale y Chulo said...

Hi again, just wanted to make sure you received my email and the word document that I attached to it. Was everything OK?
As to the fate of wild animals in a deindustrialized world, I couldn`t help but thinking in the years 1936-49, during Spanish Civil war and its aftermath. It took just a handful of hungry partisans roaming the mountains to drive deer to the verge of extincion.
You don`t need the millions that crowd today in our megapolis to wipe away all the wildlife. Just a handful of farmers can go, just enough people to keep all the arable land running the old way, say 60 million in North America and 50 or so in Europe.
It is ironical that these latter years have proven fruitful for many species and many environments in the industrial world. Woods are regaining large extensions here in Europe, and many especies which seemed to be doomed in the 80`s now are...well, they still ARE.

John Michael Greer said...

Loveandlight, of course that's one of the issues. The other is the fact that a growing number of microbes these days laugh at antibiotics. I'll be discussing that next week.

Bill, understood -- but it is being discussed.

Jason, thanks for posting a link instead of copying an argument here at length -- that way, those who are interested can follow it up, and those who aren't can pursue other threads of the dialogue. As for Abrams' take, all I can say is the traditional First Nations medicine people I've had the honor to spend time with would dismiss his entire thesis as standard Wasi'chu thinking. To say that there's no hard and fast line between the spiritual and material is not the same as saying the spiritual is simply the material under another set of names.

Asturchale, got it, and it came through fine. I've been over my head preparing for the First Salmon ceremony here tomorrow -- I'll be making a presentation on the Takelma Language Project there -- and so have been falling behind on my email.

You're quite right that it doesn't take much to mess up an ecosystem. For reasons I'll be discussing in the next several nonfiction posts, though, I expect much of the natural world to come through the decline of industrial civilization battered but intact. More on that later.

RAS said...

Hey all, I talked to someone about the tick thing. Not about the meat versus grain debate, but about why ticks and Lyme disease didn't use to be such a problem on the East Coast. My friend is much deeper into ecology than I am, and this is the hypothesis he gave me:
Deer are the primary food source for the ticks that carry lyme disease. Before the settlers came, the deer (and thus the ticks) were kept in check by both the First Nation peoples and especially by their own natural predators, mostly the big mount cats.
However, the settlers hunted both deer and cats to the point where there were not many left in the Northeast. In the past few decades deer have slowly returned (due to conservation efforts, I'm assuming) but their predators have not. (And I'm sure middle class surbabnites don't like the idea of mountain lions coming by their mountain retreats.) That's led to an explosion in the resident deer population, and thus in the tick population. It makes sense, and according to this theory, the tick problem in the NE could be gotten under control by getting the deer population under control.
-Rebecca

Bill Pulliam said...

Bill, understood -- but it is being discussed.

Yeah, I've read about it before with much horror.

In 1890, Eugene Schieffelin of the Acclimation Society of North America released 100 Starlings in New York, pursing the romantic ideal of introducing every bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare to Central Park. The descendents of these 100 birds now number over 200,000,000 and are a pest species continent-wide. Their expansion has come at the expense of dozens of native species of birds. And now some fools want to repeat his mistakes all over again.

I expect much of the natural world to come through the decline of industrial civilization battered but intact.

Most of America's declining population of hunters won't know how to kill anything once they can no longer get their ammo at MallWart.

eboy said...

With respect to ticks if you want to avoid tick bites you need adequate levels of sulfur in your system. Sulfur deficiency in the soil or if there is sulfur but it is complexed by the p.h. or other minerals in the soil.
Interestingly studies have shown that grains grown in sulfur deficient soils have dramatically less nutritional value. Sulfur forms the basis of many of the amino acids which combine to form proteins. Protein is where the rubber meats the road so to speak.

Thinking about lack of bio-diversity should sharpen the focus on protein sources. Carbs are usually much easier to find. The wilding idea suggests the mad max narrative or living in a world post plague versus co-operative small farming endeavours requiring much man power. Perhaps Adam will find some such co-operative down the road?

One thought that I'm sure has been expressed but I haven't seen is that the work involved in creating a low energy input system is that it requires lots of planning, time money and effort learning about what are becoming very esoteric skills. Meaning that you have to believe that peak oil is coming then invest the 5-10 years towards this end all the while being the joke of the neighbourhood and if another North Sea shows up you are left as the sucker who invested their childs future towards'saving' what is an ungrateful society that will act as if it was always clear that there was no real problem after all. If there is a problem that same society would rationalize taking you out for their gteater cause.
Maybe the better idea per your lifeboat communities thread is to figure out ways to collectively con others into spending the coin and effort so that you have a place to go if t.s.h.t.f.








Modern farming and commodity markets encourage farmers to get what they can while its available.
There is little to no incentive to think about improving the soil. And financial dissinsentives to pursuing sustainable farm practices. Which have to center around a small mixed farm model.
Which demand higher levels of knowledge by the farmer, and a greater capitalization different equipment for example.

J.M.G.
What your story affords is the opportunity to try to gain a perspective on a possable futur

Danby said...

Bill,
Most of America's declining population of hunters won't know how to kill anything once they can no longer get their ammo at MallWart.

It's not really the present population of hunters that we are talking about here. It's the people who learn to hunt because they need to eat. Hunger is a great motivator, and tends to sharpen the concentration of the student.

Matt said...

A lot of interesting things in the post and the comments, and a lot to digest.

One thing that strikes me about JMG's fiction, and consequently the idea of going into the woods to be hunter-gatherers is the silliness of going "into the woods." Even not taking into account the massive population drops this story takes into account, there are more structures than people in this country already. It would seem to me, that finding a structure of a suitable size and condition near a wild area would be much smarter than adding the trouble of actually living under the trees to your concerns. Listen, I've read the Boy Scout manual and a few survival guides in my time, but I'd much rather live in a warm, dry shed that I'd dragged a single bed and a desk into that trying to make a shelter every night out of pine boughs and leaves. I understand that wild foods around stationary areas would disappear over time, but I still think efforts would be made to find abandoned structures instead of going off into the woods and trying to spend nights avoiding predators, dampness, and cold. Just a thought on that matter...

Twilight had a nice comment at the end of one of her posts: They [tribal hunter gatherers] worked in groups to meet the challenges of nature. This is a key idea, here. Provided JMG's crystal ball gazing is remotely true, community structures are going to be key to survival of any and all individuals. That's why it seemed that John's discussion previously of life boat communities focused too much on the preservation of knowledge and glossed over the idea that ANY true community will be a lifeboat community. Working together in stressful situations, whether local, regional, or national, is the only to ensure survival of the greatest amount of individuals. That's why wolves have packs, birds have flocks, and humans have (had, really) tribes and communities and Ruritan clubs, or what have you. It wasn't mentioned in John's fiction, but where was neighbor helping neighbor? Where was the sharing of information, advice, food, supplies? Where was the families moving in together into a larger house to maximize efforts? Man, it sounds like that place just fell apart. True, there was the mention of Sunday nights at the restaurant, but it'll take a hell of a lot more than that to survive something as monumental as this. What's in my heart and mind? Helping my neighbor get through the winter, so he can help me get through my broken leg, and we can both hold off the invanding Chinese/Australians/Midwesterners who want to eat and steal everything. And make me a communist.

Last, I'd like to address Bill Pulliam's comments about invasive species. I know, and think it's pretty clear, that invasive species are "a bad thing," but I also understand nature to be a pretty resilient thing herself. Kudzu, for instance, is actually very edible by human beings and a lot of other plant foraging creatures. Believe me: pick any road in any direction from where I sit right now and you'll find massive hillsides just covered in kudzu, but I think it'll be held back a little if, say, food prices skyrocket, or some farmer with suddenly far fewer neighbors decides to try free ranging his remaining cattle. And a thousand suddenly free and feral house cats will take car of that starling problem, though creating a whole different one in its wake since they're technically an invasive too. Sure, introducing African wildlife into the Kansas plains is a remarkably fool hardy idea, but as far as environmental impact, I'm much more concerned with the man-made chemical and industrial pollution that pockmarks the world than I am about Japanese lady bugs and hogweed.

Last, I'd like to say I really enjoyed reading John's fiction, there. I've been toying and scribbling on a little project of a similar nature, myself, though in a graphic novel package. It crossed my mind that something like what John is doing here and what I've been scribbling has the opportunity to be immensely, if not intentionally, instructional. Solutions to problems (And methods to deal with predicaments, eh?) could be presented in a fictional form, maybe to be found and implemented later, you know? The project in my head has this aspect applied a little more directly, but the graphic novel format has more flexibility in terms of how information can be laid out on a page. With text, subtlety would be a better tool.
Anyway, great read. The preceding post, by the way, was very helpful to me in thinking about some aspects of the future environment, though I hope to present a little more optimistic of a view than poor Adam's not-so-swell beginnings. I don't remember Eden being so rough. I guess all the apple's have already been eaten.

That's my two cents.

Solar hot water workshop next weekend! While I'm sure it's going to cover industrially-produced house size installations, you can do it just fine with black plastic and two by fours! Or a long black hose left out in the sun!

Matt said...

I think I have one more penny in my hat, here, and it's this:

I understand that much of what the American/Asian industrial machine has produced since the dawn of the oil age has been junk in the true since of the word, but as one of JMG's earlier posts pointed out, salvaging and repurposing the detritus of our world will be a major factor in what any post-industrial world will look like. Imagining hunting and gathering in some idyllic pastoral situation is a far cry from the organized-by-man situation of all but the densest national parks which still have roads running through them. It's a much safer bet to use the structure already built around us for things better suited to our environment. Yes, the 15 soon to be empty big-box retailers down the road from all of us probably all can't be used for anyting too useful, but I bet if we sat down and thought about it, we could come up with something. How about storage for salvageable housing materials? Drying areas for food and seed? Bunk houses for refuge camps? Large workshops for boat manufacturing or peddle-powered vehicles? I mean, I'm being optimistic, especially since no doubt 98% of anyone's time will be spent on finding or growing food, but the point is that the Wal-Mart they built 3 years ago, the car they built last year, and everything between won't be crumbling to dust anytime soon, and all of those things will play some sort of role. Probably a key one!

I've been daydreaming about running a class or organizing some sort of workshop (and eventually writing a book) about taking apart a common soon to be useless car and repurposing every part of it into something else that would be more useful -- shovels or seats or shoes or roofing or fabric or electronics. You get the point. There's going to be a few million of the suckers sitting around. Might as well find a use for them...Problem is, I know bunk about cars. Time to learn!

Matt said...

Ha! Three posts in as many hours! But I found something for all you hunter/gatherers out there:

http://www.avclub.com/content/cinema/ten_canoes

Looks pretty good, and certainly up the alley of this crowd.

Me, I'll stick to M. John Harrisons's Viricomium mindset. Salvage the relics of the past!

Too many darn people for anything but farming. Those flat roofs on top of Best Buy might be good for something after all. Now how to get all that dern topsoil up there...

Fergal said...

Some of the newcomers moved into empty houses on the edge of town and tried to farm for a few years before loneliness, sickness, or the thin acid soil that had defeated the original homesteaders in the 1800s drove them back to the city or straight to the Learyville cemetery.


Had some of the newcomers used horticulture/permaculture/small-scale
organic farming/call-it-what-you-will techniques that build up the soil would they have faired better (like
Marge Dotson apparently did?) or does the soil have to at least have some minimal quality before even these techniques can take hold? Or is it more an issue of lack of social/infrastructure support that would have caused them to fail?

FARfetched said...

The latter comments talk about what to do with the big-box buildings. Before I found this blog, I'd been working on a P.I. series of short stories where some of the action takes place in "wallyworlds," self-contained cities built inside those abandoned stores.

Of course you don't haul topsoil up to the roof -- you pry up all that parking lot pavement and put the topsoil there! :-) The chunks of pavement could be used to build rooms inside or to outline beds. Windmills and solar collectors go on the roof.

John Michael Greer said...

Rebecca and Dan, I can't speak about deer more generally, but here in southern Oregon they have become a suburban garden pest and have completely lost their fear of humans. My guess is that during the next economic downturn a lot of those will be finding their way surreptitiously into freezers. My grandparents used to tell stories of getting by during the Depression years in which poached venison played a noticeable role, and we have a respectable number of bowhunters and black powder enthusiasts hereabouts.

Eboy, very interesting about the sulfur issue. As for your comment about the economics of sustainability, this is square on -- I commented in similar terms in my post Cycles of Sustainability -- and this is one of the reasons I've come to think the entire "lifeboat community" notion is fatally flawed. More on this in a later post.

Matt, your comments on community and the art of salvaging the physical capital of industrial society are spot on from my perspective. I didn't stress the cooperative dimension in this story for a variety of reasons, but you'll notice it in details throughout if you look. Still, cooperative communities can still die out if the economic and ecological basis for survival isn't there.

Your idea of exploring future possibilities in a graphic novel form sounds like a good one, BTW. So does learning the skills of materials salvage. One of the major legacies of industrial society to the future will be the transfer of vast amounts of raw material from diffuse deposits far below the earth to concentrated form on the surface. Much of this can be salvaged and worked by low-tech methods, a point I'll document in detail in a future post. For now, here's an account by a guy in Britain who built, from scratch, an effective smelter to turn aluminum scrap into ingots; the same device would work on copper and most other nonferrous metals. More on this later.

Viriconium! Gods, it's been a long time since I've heard anyone mention Harrison's books. The Pastel City and Edgar Pangborn's Davy, both of which I first read during the energy crises of the Seventies, probably played a larger role than anything else in getting me to think outside the myth of progress and see that decline was also a possibility. Both are also thumping good reads, which probably didn't hurt.

Fergal, good -- you're thinking. You can get good crops from bare sand with organic methods, as long as you're willing to compost your own feces and every other scrap of organic matter you can, but it takes time. In a market society in the early decades of decline, it also takes an economic infrastructure that will allow you to sell your produce and pay your bills and taxes. If somebody had showed up in Learyville's last years with the tools, knowledge, and resources to start farming and keep themselves going until they could feed themselves, they probably could have made it, but the same demographic factors that made Learyville nonviable meant there were plenty of better prospects. We'll be seeing some of those later on in the series.

eboy said...

Responding to Matt's posts:
"community structures are going to be key to survival of any and all individuals. That's why it seemed that John's discussion previously of life boat communities focused too much on the preservation of knowledge and glossed over the idea that ANY true community will be a lifeboat community. Working together in stressful situations, whether local, regional, or national, is the only to ensure survival of the greatest amount of individuals. ... but where was neighbor helping neighbor? Where was the sharing of information, advice, food, supplies? Where was the families moving in together into a larger house to maximize efforts? ...And a thousand suddenly free and feral house cats will take car of that starling problem, though creating a whole different one in its wake since they're technically an invasive too

Solar hot water workshop next weekend! .., you can do it just fine with black plastic and two by fours! Or a long black hose left out in the sun! "

Salvaging cars is a great idea. A 12 volt world -The problem however is the same -batteries, even with a desulfator Batteries will not last too long without other solutions. An insulated tank of water at the end of the black piping that's in the sun is a form of battery. And of course flywheels need to be promoted as they are like batteries.

In a popular mechanics there was a report on a electric vehicle trade show back in the late 70's and the only candidate that offered any promise was the one with a flywheel.

I like the Flinstone idea except I see bicycle gears topping up a heavy encased flywheel that could help with initial torque requirements.

I have a farm with workhorses, and thinking about what I have learned about horse farming is that this is very much preferred to hand tools. Horses require land for feed and obviously the ability to make hay. But confer power and manure two valuable assets. John Deere pointed out rather eloquently in a book that he wrote (which was intended to promote the tractor in favor of horses)just what an improvement horse power with equipment was over hand power.

Consider spreading barn manure with pitch forks, by hand off of a wagon versus using a ground driven manure spreader for example.

The community support idea is great Matt but having walked a little in this direction for the last decade.
The knowledge requirements are stunning. Things that you would never dream of wanting an understanding of. Solutions to problems is the root of the invention process.
Simple things that farmers take as common sense which would never dawn on you (not you personally)can mean crop or livestock failure. So yes to a willing community of like minded survivalists but if none know how to do anything...

The druids are, rather prudent to be advocating learning now.As is Thomas Homer Dixon. Mitigating the collapse "The Upside of Down"

I suspect that environmental problems like lack of bio-diversity will start compounding problems. Biological feed back loops so to speak. Loss of open pollinated seed cultivars to deal with the challenges.

One such may be unfolding as we speak, that being colony collapse disorder. I have felt the sting having lost 80% of my hives. Speaking of which we have heard that Oregon has been spared from this problem. Is this true?

I live in Ontario, and near where I live they had a problem with too many porcupines the Govt dept responsable advocated introducing fishers to help with their comeback and to tame excess porcupine. Of course you know where I'm going with this. Suffice to say the fisher population is now the problem and the solution. Cougars! Of course the fishers will gladly take care of those cats for you Matt (I trust where you live you have em) . In fact I suspect that city people have inadvertantly been feeding the fishers. Out you go kitty go be free. The question is what will take care of the cougars?

Anyone know what a fanning mill is? Sow only 3 pecks or she won't stool means? A 2 or 3 person gossip? Do you need to?

Thanks J.M.G. for your comment I just saw your post.

w/r/to

"There are good reasons to think that the energy put into this debate will turn out to be just as misplaced as it was in the Seventies, and for much the same reasons. Prophecy is risky business, but it’s a risk worth taking on occasion, so I would like to offer the following seemingly unlikely prediction: fifteen years after the definite arrival of a peak in oil production, the price of crude oil in Euros will be no higher than it is today, and may actually be quite a bit lower."

I agree that it is very hard to tell the future-It has been said that the 'best economists are only off by a factor of 300%! Who predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall or the U.S. invading IRAQ in response to an attack from what appeared to be Saudi Nationals?

Being concerned about the future ( I humbly posit) is a common denominator to all regular contributors to your blog. And since people tend to pay attention to that which scares them this makes for a good recipe for success. Consider the insurance business.

What seems clear is that we use a lot of energy and at some time (I predict we are past peak right now) we will arrive at peak oil. What isn't clear is how will demand destruction play out? And will any substitute technologies show up?

On a radio show today called 'Quirks and Quarks' (c.b.c.)They reported a Group from Quebec who have moved the bar closer to being able to make superconductor material that would work at room temperature. This would change the world! It's like needing to study for an exam and continually postponing it until the angst of not studying is greater than the angst of studying.

In the movie 'The Trueman Show Trueman was being dissuaded by the use of fear from leaving his Learyville home" For example the poster on the wall at the travel agency depicting a plane being struck by lightening. He saw signs that his world wasn't, quite as it was presented to him, the powers that be, sought to dissuade him from changing his environment.

Taking steps to improve the quality of the soil in your backyard garden while you could still use heavy equipment would be an action that all economic analysis would suggest as folly. But in a collapse such behavior would prove wise. And that brings me back to being the joke of the neighbourhood.

bryant said...

Hey Bill Pulliam!

Yeah, I've read about it before with much horror.

As a practicing Permaculturist and a geologist with a paleontological bent, I find your aversion to introduced species somewhat strange. Migrations and colonizations are the norm throughout the paleontological record. Besides the irony of "us white folk" complaining about invasive species, there are a great many introduced species which are well behaved and extremely useful.

Most of the Pleistocene mega fauna were eliminated within that last ten to one hundred thousand years. Do you really think that the ecosystems of the American west have recovered from the loss of giant ground sloths, camels and mammoths already?

Frankly, I think reintroducing a full range of ungulates is a good idea…by all means, reintroduce the predators as well.

This is not meant a personal criticism; I enjoy reading your posts, and frequently agree with you.

Matt said...

My criticisms of John's fiction were honestly a little misplaced. It's a pretty big country (world), and all sorts of responses none of us have even thought of will no doubt make appearances, including some confused kids wandering off into the woods to meet their demise. Really, as Danby pointed out, hunger is a great motivator, but it can also lead you to do some pretty dumb things. I guess, like bill pulliam commented, I was just struck by the darkness of John's story and wanted to present more optimistic ideas. I know that it's a pretty harsh reality that's inherent to the story; I just hoped neighbors would consider looking over the fence next door to see who lived there after the TV was shut off for good, you know?

Though, as eboy wisely pointed out, it won't be too helpful to have a lot of people, organized or not, if no one knows anything. To that, though, I have two responses. First, it takes only one person in a group to teach everybody else an item of knowledge, say one Master Gardener (Though they always have that preoccupation with flowers), or the horticulture teacher from the local community college, or that old guy who you vaguley remember seeing till his soil every year. Humans, and all predators, really, have always had organization on their side -- a feature probably best seen in the ultimate human machine, the military -- and information sharing is a hallmark of any organized system. It only takes one, is my point.

Second, to make another Viriconium reference, there's always "external brains." Libraries and used book stores and no doubt quite a few book shelves all have books that no doubt contain the crucial information needed. Heck, just today I passed up dozens of books on growing vegetables in this or that environment, using this or that method. True, many of them will be useless without the prescribed doses of triple 19, pesticides, and ready made mulch, but that doesn't mean there's not a lot of key information contained in them. Sure, sure, depending on how bleak your outlook for the future, libraries may be raided for burning material, roofs may cave in -- what have you. But if I'm looking for kindling, I'm going to start in the romance section, or maybe all those diet books and C++ code books.

Sure, there's a lot of knowledge that's been lost to our collective and individual conciousness -- Right now, I have no idea when to plant a lot of vegetables, any signs of the weather, etc -- but that doesn't mean it isn't written down somewhere, and looking back to point one, once you've read it, you can tell your neighbor.

One last rant. I keep quiet on three months of posts, and now I'm stinkin' Faulkner over here.

It seems to me that it doesn't matter if a lot of what a level-headed peak oiler predicts doesn't come true at all. There are some things, I personally believe, that are unavoidable -- energy costs will rise, no matter what, for instance. But one thing I think that saves the whole deal, and why I never have any pangs of doubt about my views of the future, is that very few people advocate responses that would be harmful should we all be wrong. Stronger local/regional communities and economies are good things. Getting to know your local farmers is a good thing. Driving less and walking/biking more is a good thing. Increasing the efficiency of the systems that surround you is a good thing. Reducing your energy input and your environmental footprint is a good thing. No. Matter. What. Happens.

I mean, even if we find a billion jillion new barrels of oil (And really turn that screw tight on our eventual fate!), I truly and honestly believe all of you who have made changes based on a suddenly false guess about the future will be happier, healthier, wiser, and wealthier (On many levels).

Last! I promise! -- I was speaking to salvaging cars on a more nuts and bolts level, things outside of using the alternator on a windmill, or the battery in a PV system. Things like using the tires for rubber sandals, and the seat covers for fabric, and the sheet metal in the body for shovels or roofing tiles, the frame for raw metal, the springs for tool steel. Not that the former aren't great ideas, but the latter's a little more complete. Thanks for the support of the idea, though!

Bill Pulliam said...

Migrations and colonizations are the norm throughout the paleontological record

This is the same line of reasoning that holds that "climate change has been the norm throughout the paleontological record, so future rapid anthropogenic climate change is nothing to worry about." Look at the historical record, not the paleontological one. There is scarcely an ecosystem on earth that has not suffered LOSS of biodiversity and impairment of function because of human-introduced alien species. My biggest beef with permaculture as it is practiced (not in theory) has been the fact that is often carried out with an indiscriminate focus on alien species and ignorance of the ecosystems native to the area that it is supposedly striving to work with rather than against. Your bamboo may be useful to you, but it an invasive weed that is harmful to native ecosystems.

I can't think of a square kilometer of this planet that would not benefit, ecologically speaking, from the complete elimination of all species from it that were introduced by humans. American ground sloths and camels are GONE. They cannot be replaced or even approximated by asian and african aliens. Our pleistocene ecosystems evolved with the presence of the american species, not the superficially similar old world animals. Do think you could "replace" mountain gorillas with humans? Coyotes aren't even proving to be a suitable "replacement" for wolves in the places where this substitution has happened, and these species are far more similar than elephants versus mammoths. Sure, we all would have loved to see the megafauna roaming the American steppes with our own eyes. But it ain't gonna happen. Gone. Forever. No way back. An elephant will never be a mammoth. All it will ever be in this continent is yet another foreign invader, adding to the disturbance of the continent's ecosystems, not somehow magically mitigating it.

Pleistocene rewilding needs to be tossed on the junk heap of really bad ideas quickly, before someone actually carries it out.

But I fear we are wandering way off topic here.

Vlad said...

Bill Pulliam said:
"Your bamboo may be useful to you, but it an invasive weed that is harmful to native ecosystems. "

That is mostly true, but, there are 3 species of bamboo native to North America: Arundinaria gigantea, Arundinaria tecta & Arundinaria appalachiana.

Granted, this in no way invalidates your point, as the majority of bamboos planted by Americans are none of these species, I just wanted to clarify.

jhereg

bryant said...

Hi Bill Pulliam.

Thank you for your thoughtful response. We may be off-topic, but not as far off-topic as you think.

I suspect there are things about which we will simply disagree, and I think invasion biology will be one of them. There is a “Mythic Narrative” aspect to invasion biology…from the outside, it looks like a “Golden Age” myth wrapped up in science which uses a lot of hyperbole and strident language; alien, invader, bad.

A question concerning timing; at what point does an introduced species become native? What defines "nativeness"? Is an exotic Eurasian snail introduced into N. American on a bird's leg functionally any different from a dog which accompanies a Eurasian hominid migrating across the Bering land bridge?

As to mega fauna; you’re right, they are gone and they are not coming back. As you so eloquently stated, an elephant is not a mammoth. It must be the Permaculture thing, but I see the extinct North American animals as unique, but the niches those animals filled as functional equivalents. It is a bad idea to introduce African species to the Great Plains…my support of it was mostly tongue and cheek. The image of packs of lions helping the further “depopulate” the Midwest was stuck in my mind.

John Michael Greer said...

Well, yes, it's a bit off topic, but both of you have kept your comments brief, courteous, and to the point. It's when individual comments are several times longer than my original post and off topic that I start getting querulous.

I hope, by the way, that nobody will be too upset if I delay the post on depopulation (and the rest of this series) by one week. Maybe it's just that some of the recent debates here have sensitized me to this, but I've been noticing just how many people out there argue that peak oil is inevitably going to bring whatever form of society they happen to think we ought to have. The usually sensible Sharon Astyk fell splat into that one in a post I read yesterday. This sort of snake oil logic is something that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later, I think.

Bill Pulliam said...

bryant -- Just as with climate change, it's all a matter of how fast. Climates have always changed, and new species have always found their ways to islands and continents where they didn't exist before. The problem is when these processes start happening with unprecedented speed. Because of global human mobility, plant and animal species are being spread around the world at a phenomenal rate. This invasion of new species (much of which is happening incidentally and unintentionally) overwhelms many ecosystems. The results are a loss in regional differences, a reduction in biodiversity (a few aliens come to occupy the niche space that was formerly occupied by a wider array of natives), and a simplification of ecosystem structure and function. Simplified ecosystems are less resilient ones; think of the monoculture as the extreme example.

Of course, in the present world, the distinction between "natural" and "anthropogenic" is not a sharp line. A couple of examples... during the 20th century several species of old-world gulls spread westwards across the north Atlantic and are now firmly established here in the North America. So is this a "natural" expansion, because they flew here under their own power? Or is it an "anthropogenic" invasion, because human activities (like garbage dumping and commercial fishing) changed the environment and made it a better place to be a gull, hence their population increase and range expansion. Similarly, coyotes spread into the southeast in response to the opening and fragmentation of the landscape, and the elimination of the wolves that once lived here. So are they a native species, or an alien invader? They walked and swam here by themselves, but we made it a happy place for them to live.

What all these things do respresent is change. And because of human activities, change worldwide is happening faster now than in many many millenia; perhaps faster than ever before. Given this, doing something that will spin this whirlwind up even faster (like spewing old-world grazers all over the american steppe) seems to me to be clearly a bad idea.

vlad -- the arundinarias are some of my favorite native grasses. But they don't have the structural qualities of the most robust asian bamboos. You can grow bamboo (and a vast array of other non-native species) without having them turn into noxious weeds if you are mindful in selecting the species and in how you grow them. The problem is too many people who aren't so careful.

bryant said...

Bill Pulliam, Like Michael Feldman, your answers are well reasoned and insightful.

I found this comment by you especially pertinent:

And because of human activities, change worldwide is happening faster now than in many many millenia; perhaps faster than ever before.

Certainly change is happening fast and in virtually every ecosystem on every continent and ocean. Comparable to the joining of North and South America, but writ worldwide.

I suppose I am too sanguine about the matter, but my assessment is that the bulk of the damage has already been done. In essence, we have “shuffled the Deck of Life” and returning all the plants and animals to their rightful place is beyond our power.

Who knows, with the climate likely to eventually stabilize around some different strange attractor, one of these exotic species may well be the salvation of an ecosystem rather than it’s hangman.

JMG is going to string us along for another week? How far off-topic do you think we’ll be by then?

John Michael Greer said...

Ah, but I'll be giving you something else to get off topic about in a couple of days. I can think of several people who've commented here who are likely to have something to say about it, too.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, while we're talking here, there's a category 5 tropical cyclone (that'd be "hurricane" on this side of the planet) headed toward the mouth of the Persian Gulf just now. The impacts on petroleum production and export may be, well, interesting. Take a look here for details.

bryant said...

Seriously JMG, take all the time you need. I've always found your work to be worth the wait.

Bill Pulliam said...

Now to stray even farther off-topic, but at least down the same path (sort of)...

There's a credible and respectable hypothesis that all our heavy-seeded forest trees in eastern North America (hickories, oaks, chestnuts, etc. which dominate much of the forest east of the plains and south of the boreal) coevolved with Passenger Pigeons as a principal dispersal mechanism. Otherwise, it is hard to explain how they (the trees) carried out their repeated northward and southward migrations with the pleistocene climate shifts. A Passenger Pigeon could eat a nut in Georgia and deposit it the next day in Illinois if, for instance, it got snagged by a Cooper's Hawk on its northward migration (the nut still being in the pigeon's crop, which the hawk would leave behind as offal). Mourning doves, on the other hand, don't each such large seeds, nor are they quite as much of a long-distance migrant. Mammals and gravity are only going to disperse these trees by at most a hundred meters or so per generation. And now, as we potentially face even more rapid climate change.. well, the pigeons are extinct.

Maybe rather that trying to reestablish the megafauna, we should be gathering nuts and acorns in the south and scattering them across the landscape hundreds of km farther north (and vice-versa; the interaction of rainfall and temperature shifts could easily make some species migrate southwards in spite of warmer temperatures... or eastwards, or westwards). But that has a whole nuther set of problems associated with it, in terms of carrying pathogens and pests. Such a quandry...

John Michael Greer said...

Maybe rather that trying to reestablish the megafauna, we should be gathering nuts and acorns in the south and scattering them across the landscape hundreds of km farther north

This is something human beings are fairly good at -- hazelnuts spread north into postglacial Europe much faster than any other plant, right alongside human beings and their prey animals. It's also something that's been discussed in some detail in Druid circles. I know there are potential problems, but it's probably going to be necessary to risk those in order to keep ecosystems from collapsing altogether.

e4 said...

I'm way late to the story here, but one nitpick:

If the story is set in the second half of this century (rather than the last one), won't the old folks have names like Emily and MacKenzie instead of Edna and Marge?