I had some additional questions for Joe, the viewpoint character of last week’s Archdruid Report post. Despite his failing health, he welcomed the chance for an interview. We met at the village hall, walked down to the beach just south of it, and sat on a convenient piece of weathered concrete just above the high water line.
Q: I want to thank you for making the time to talk with me, Joe. I hope you’re not in too much pain.
A: Oh, it comes and goes. It’s not too bad today.
Q: Does the village healer have anything to help with pain?
A: Not for something like this. Sharon makes a willow bark tea that does a good job on cramps and headaches, and poppy resin can be had from merchants now and again, but it costs half the earth—more than a schoolteacher can afford, certainly.
Q: If you don’t mind my asking, how much money do you make?
A: Money? Very little; there’s not much of that in circulation these days. I have one student whose family pays me in money—they’re in trade, so it’s convenient for them. The rest pay in barter or rice chits—those are markers good for a fraction of next year’s rice crop. Most local trade uses one or the other. Still, you can’t buy foreign goods with them, and even if I sold everything I got I couldn’t keep myself in poppy resin for more than a little while. No, I found my remedy in a couple of the Old Time books in my library. You might have heard of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius.
Q: The Stoic philosophers?
A: Good! If you were one of my students you’d get a treat. Yes, the old Stoics have a lot to offer these days. Any of my students who stay long enough to handle Old Time English prose end up reading them.
Q: How many students do you have?
A: Right now, fifteen. It’s up and down depending on the season, and of course school’s closed for planting and harvest, but it’s usually between ten and twenty. That’s not bad in a village with fewer than a hundred children of school age, you know.
Q: What about the other children? Can’t their parents afford to send them to school?
A: Partly that; partly, some people don’t see the point of schooling their children; and partly, some children just aren’t suited to book learning. They’ll be perfectly good farmers and crafters even if they can’t read a word of Old Time English, and the doors illiteracy closes to them probably wouldn’t open for them anyway. To my mind, as long as there are always at least a few who have the means, the desire, and the talent to learn, I have no reason to complain. It helps that the church encourages learning so much, of course. Any girl who wants to enter the priestesshood knows right away that she has to learn to read—they won’t even consider taking a postulant who can’t read the sacred books.
Q: What do you think of the Gaian church? I thought I heard a little ambivalence on your part in the Nawida essay.
A: Oh, I think the world of it. (laughs) Seriously, it’s a very good thing. The church does a huge amount of good in the world and not much evil. Of course that might change; I’ve read enough history to know what religions can do if they get tangled up in politics. Still, people need a place to hang their hopes, and that usually means some religion or other. In Old Time they tried to put their hopes on sheer material extravagance instead, but they ran out of resources long before they ran out of cravings to satisfy. That’s the advantage religion has, you know: salvation is a renewable resource. Since the church’s notion of salvation is all mixed up with ecological restoration, they’ve got an advantages most of the Old Time faiths didn’t.
Q: But you don’t actually believe in the Gaian teachings.
A: I can’t see any reason to think that a planetary biosphere has any reason to concern itself with what happens to any particular life form running around on its skin, even if the life form has two legs and a head chockfull of grandiose ideas about its own importance. Now I could be as wrong as wrong can be, but that’s the thing I can’t get my head around.
Q: What does the church think of that?
A: Oh, we’ve had our ups and downs. During the drought years I pretty much kept my mouth shut; those were hard times, and faith in Mama Gaia was just about the only thing that kept people going. Once the seas rose and the rains came, times got much easier, and that makes for tolerance. Anna—she was the priestess before the one we have now—she and I used to sit up late nights and argue about theology over a bottle of whiskey. A fine, well-read person. If the church turns out to be right and I wake up in Mama Gaia’s bosom after this old body finally shuts down, Anna’s one I’ll look for. She was the one who figured out that my Darwin book was something the church didn’t have.
Q: Which book was that?
A: The Voyage of the Beagle. That was one of the books in the old set of Harvard Classics I bought in ’38. Since Darwin’s one of the prophets…
Q: Wait a moment. Charles Darwin is a Gaian prophet?
A: That’s what the church says. It’s in the litany: ‘And for Darwin, who taught the holy truth that humanity is part of nature and bound by its laws—for him and his teaching we give thanks to the Earth Mother.’ Mind you, I sometimes wonder what old Darwin himself would think of that. At any rate, the church has big libraries in Denva and a few other places, and Darwin’s other books are in those, but as far as anyone knows mine was the only copy of The Voyage of the Beagle anywhere. That got me a great deal of tolerance from then on. It probably didn’t hurt that most of my best students went into the church themselves.
Q: How do you feel about that?
A: Oh, I have my ambivalent moments. When I was younger I had wild dreams about reviving technology and rebuilding a secular society, but it’s clear to me now that nothing like that is going to happen anytime soon. As I said, people need a place to hang their hopes, and after what happened to Old Time, there aren’t a lot of people willing to try the same thing again—even if that was possible, and I don’t think it is. I’ve read that when the last big civilization went under, the Old Believers did then what the church is doing now: preserving knowledge, trying to blunt the sharp edges of the times, and—well, look at that! You don’t see one of those every day.
Q: That ship?
A: A two-master up from Antarctica. It’s been close to a year since the last one came.
Q: Antarctica? Do people live there?
A: Quite a few of them. There were settlers in West Antarctica early in the last century; once the western ice sheet melted, it was opened for settlement. They suffered terribly when the big eastern ice sheet collapsed in 2119, of course, but that left the whole continent free of ice. The Antarcticans are great sailors, and trade with anybody who has something they don’t. That means almost everything except wheat, beef, gold, and timber, from what I hear. It’s hard to know what’s true and what’s travelers’ tales these days.
Q: Do you get much news from abroad?
A: Only when merchants or travelers come through, and then only what they remember and want to talk about. Even on this continent, it takes time for news to spread. We didn’t hear about the war between China and Mexico until it was half over, for example, and it went on for close to five years.
Q: Has war been a problem here?
A: Not recently. We had a brisk little border war with the Dakota Republic a few years ago over some territory up near the Missouri headwaters, but most often the Six Republics get along. Yes, that’s most of the old United States east of the Rockies and north of the sea. Generally things seem to have settled down since my childhood.
Q: As a final question, what kind of future do you hope your students will have?
A: Whatever kind they decide to make for themselves. It’s a bigger world than it was in Old Time, when you could step in a plane here and be on the other side of the ocean in a few hours. Now it takes weeks even to get to Denva, and that’s not far away by Old Time standards. A bigger world and not so many people means there’s room for many different futures. I wish I could see some of them, just as I’d probably be glad to be spared some of them. But that’s the way of things. I imagine the same thing was true in Old Time; there were good choices and bad ones. It’s just that the bad ones had so much impact. Nothing we do these days will have half so much, but I hope we can do better in our own small way.