Review of Kunstler's post-peak novel by a woman who has lived the life
Two authors recently offered me their books for review.
Mr. James Kunstler lives fairly near to my mountainside and we talk online sporadically, he being a tremendously busy man. And Mr. Murphy a lot further away but he knows what our winters are like.
Both men are very interested in the fate of humanity and the future struggles we may face. Both are concerned about human populations, the Hubbert Oil Peak and other obvious limitations on growth and the health of the planet.
Both books bring up things we must think about and I have a lot to say about all this. For I have lived the future and know it very intimately. That is, if the future is like the distant past. For I lived without electricity or most modern conveniences for many years.
World Made by Hand: A Novel (Hardcover)
by James Howard Kunstler
(Click on his name to order this book.)
This is a book about post-WWIII Albany-area New York, out in the rural counties surrounding the state capital of this state. Which happens to be about where I live today, incidentally.
Jim has been banging on the drums for many years. He, like myself, is basically a 'real conservative.' Namely, he likes good, solid houses that are well-crafted. He likes well behaved children and a respect for elders. He likes wholesome foods and running around all over the place, creating havoc. Wait. That doesn't fit! Oh well. He, like myself, thinks about World War III a great deal and like myself, openly discusses it. This is the realist in ourselves. We know that empires, when on the ropes, can and often do, pull out all the artillery and begins to blast away. And no nation on earth has more artillery than the US.
First off, I must say that Jim is a marvelous author. Very talented. When I read his books, they just fly by, the cadence of the sentences and the weaving of spells is quite superior. He can get us right into the grip of his main characters and he can build really marvelous male characters. The insight he has for certain people is reflected in his dialogue and descriptions of what goes on in someone's mind. I was quite fascinated, as I suspect he was, with his character, the religious leader, Reverend Jobe.
Just as we are the most drawn towards that which we fear the most, so I suspect Jim was with Jobe. Jim lectures to mass audiences frequently and he knows the allure of the leader who inspires belief and devotion. He knows the hazards, too. Many Americans are frightened of religious leaders. Yet the truth be told, when there is a devolution of society, when things fall apart due to the Four Horsemen riding roughshod over us all, the desire to cling to stronger personalities who are firm in their own convictions and strict in their ways is very strong.
The novel, World Made By Hand does reflect this honestly. I do recommend reading this book..if you are a male or if you are a hard-hearted woman like myself. For it has one very tragic weakness: it cannot penetrate into the reality and minds of women. And it grossly underestimates the true power of the feminine. As someone who has lived the life he writes about, I know exactly what happens and who gets to do what.
Namely, women can be the strong, not weak, links. My ancestresses strode across America, they sailed across the wild oceans in small ships. And they battled the wilderness and won. By never giving up, never looking away and never losing focus on the most important of people: the children. The person who rises before the sun to take care of the dawn chores usually is a woman. The one who stays up all night with a sick child is usually a woman. And the one who delivers babies and cleans up ugly messes is very often...a woman.
Most writers about the End of Civilization jump to the idea that the man will rule again and the woman will retreat. I suppose this is much less prone in minority communities where often the matriarch is the dominate force. But in European-based cultures, there is this strong belief that women will retreat to the house. But this is a false idea. For in Medieval Europe, the women worked in the fields just like the men. And herded animals or chopped firewood. They did all sorts of things. The one difference was, they did two major, extra chores: birthing of children and all things to do with weaving. Spinning wool was something even the queen did as she sat upon her throne up until 1200 AD.
I want to share a very old story here: a city was besieged by the English king. The French said they would surrender but asked if their wives could carry out of the siege something they wanted to keep safe. The king said, 'They may carry on their backs one thing only.'
Expecting them to carry precious dishes and candlesticks in a sack, instead, they came out carrying their husbands on their backs. The king allowed this for he said, 'They know well what the true prize is.' And I keep telling everyone here that the great prize is our loves, our families. Jim, in his book, does cover that quite admirably. But he still misses many details about how a retro-society will work.
I lived this way for years. For example, he claims dogs will be eaten or mostly vanish. Yet he has cattle, sheep and other livestock in his story. So, I thought, who guards these animals? Who is the alert creature who can run around a herd and move it? Chase off the slinking wolves, foxes and bears during birthing season in early spring when the predators are the hungriest?
Dogs eat nearly anything and even in the poorest, starving communities I have seen in my childhood in third world nations, there were dogs. If you approach a village, you are greeted by dogs that come out barking. They are the ultimate guards. They are able to understand many words and do many jobs.
The very first animal on my farm was Duke, the sled dog. He pulled the sled for us when we went logging in winter. He carried up the food in winter. He guarded the place and if anyone wanted to do mischief and we had these, Duke and I easily dealt with them, my gun and his lunging with teeth bared doing the trick.
In Jim's story, people are menaced periodically and one of the few dogs in the story is shot and killed. The owner of this dog did not go to the killer and stick his other dogs on him or shoot him. But I know from living on a ranch as a child and living on my nearby farm which is only a few miles from where this story takes place, if anyone were to shoot MY dogs they better run really fast and hope I can't track them down! Not to mention, shooting ANY of my animals. Any at all.
The fury of the farmer, the rage of the shepherd is legendary. It is more than that, when chaos spreads and most people are helpless, the ones who take over are not ones with normal skills. I once dated a man who grew up on a pine turpentine plantation in Georgia. He could snap off a shot at a squirrel skittering up a tree without blinking. He was not very suited for urban life yet he went into downtown Newark, being black, and worked there to organize a street patrol and hammer out a community in the middle of urban devastation just a few years after the worst of the riots destroyed nearly everything. Rebuilding in chaos is hard work and he worked very hard. The main thing was, no one obviously wanted to push him to anger and he was a very patient man.
He would have fit fine in Kunstler's book, by the way.
James Howard Kunstler says he wrote The Geography of Nowhere, "Because I believe a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work."
Home From Nowhere was a continuation of that discussion with an emphasis on the remedies. A portion of it appeared as the cover story in the September 1996 Atlantic Monthly.
His next book in the series, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, published by Simon & Schuster / Free Press, is a look a wide-ranging look at cities here and abroad, an inquiry into what makes them great (or miserable), and in particular what America is going to do with it's mutilated cities.
His latest book, The Long Emergency, published by the Atlantic Monthly Press in 2005, is about the challenges posed by the coming permanent global oil crisis, climate change, and other "converging catastrophes of the 21st Century."
Back to dogs, etc. We got a dog and a good thing, too. He was our protector and trust me, living in a tent, you need protection. In Kunstler's book, a bunch of 'trailer trash' assault a young lady left alone at night. She had no dogs, either. I know that Duke would have had some sport if anyone thought of doing this to us. Then we got Cleo, the English Mastiff, a 250 lb dog. Now, the we didn't have to worry about bears, either. But before her, we got the kittens. We had too many mice and Duke couldn't catch them. Within three months of the kittens moving in, no more mice. Cats and dogs were some of the first animals to be domesticated and I know why. My life would have been a misery without them. They earned their keep. When we slaughtered animals, they feasted. But in between, they hunted for themselves or for us. Or both.
Collean was our third dog. After three years in the tent complex, we had a fairly large flock of sheep. The picture below is Stella and a pair of twins she birthed. We had to learn to deliver babies and nurse orphans or save them in blizzards. It seemed that most of the mothers gave birth in very foul weather. I suspect this is nature at work. Predators don't bother hunting in blizzards or ice storms. It seemed to me that the characters in the book Jim wrote spent way too much time messing around. Who was watching the sheep? Sheering the sheep? Fighting off coyotes and wolves?
We got a bee hive from an old man. Then some wild bees moved in. More things to worry about. Bears. Cleo was the most use here. She would actually go out and assault bears. We also got Sparky, our wonder horse and an ox team, Chip and Dale.
They had their pastures but lived in the tent complex with us. We had to go out in violent storms to find them sometimes and bring them in. Once, a lightning bolt hit me and scared the oxen so much, they left deep dents in the ground when they jumped. Cleaning ox and horse stalls is hard work but that goes into the gardens. Again, endless work, summer and winter except when everything froze to the ground and couldn't be pried off even with dynamite.
Yes, that was the Tent Complex. We lived there for 10 years. In winter, my son and I would bury the tent with snow except the top of the roofs. This insulated us. The doors and windows and other things there were all scavenged. Jim, in his book, was right about scavengers. But one thing amused me: his characters were consumed with trying to keep themselves comfortable. In big houses. This is nearly impossible up here in winter. I used to prepare for winter in a very efficient but brutal way: I would deliberately wear as little as possible in the Fall. This way, my body would become acclimated to the weather and I could run around the pasture in my bathrobe when it was below zero and not be bothered much by this. Jim was correct in his book that characters would long for the insulated, cushioned life style of yore. But after WWIII, the true winners in the battle for rebuilding the world would be those who can endure great discomfort and not even notice it.
Here we are, inside the tent in winter, sitting near the wood stove, reading.
One thing about survivalism: it isn't pretty but it can be fun if approached in the right frame of mind. Many people fear the possibility of survival in difficulties like we had. Yet they were not all that great a challenge if one felt strong of mind and body. I got up at 5 am to start the fires, bake the bread and feed the livestock before sending the boy and the husband out the door. I then worked on cleaning the lamps, a daily chore, hauling or making water from snow, dealing with making dinner depending on what had to be prepared from scratch, etc. I would go off in the woods for kindling or wood for the cook stove which was 150 years old.
My son would come home and stack or unstack firewood. He would hike up the mountain to the artesian well and pump water for two hours. He collected firewood. He would herd the sheep and feed them their evening grain. He cleaned stalls. Moved or harvested hay. Children with many idle hours don't live like us. Many books written about post-Apocalyptic America dwell a great deal on the need to discipline children and putting women in their place. This bothers me a bit. Children usually, when it comes to survival, work well if the adults are not childish.
This yoke shows how big our ox team was. Both boys have died of old age since then, alas. They were very loving, loyal beasts. They followed talk and we would say, 'Gee' or 'Haw' to make them turn right or left, for example. It was that simple. They could haul huge trees. Sparky hauled the smaller trees.
This was our party place. We had many visitors for this. Our hot tub. I moved it indoors in winter and would melt snow in it and this is how we washed everything and everyone. In summer, Mr. Toad lived under it. In winter, it kept the tent warmer at night. Instead of 20 degrees at night, it would be 38 degrees. We slept under very warm wool and down blankets. We had this joke. The 'scream factor.' The first one in bed had to scream to let us all know how cold it was. After about half an hour, the bed warms up.
Actually, I remember those days fondly. I do appreciate modern life. Living without much of anything is interesting, to say the least. But the main thing I want to emphasize is the need for animals of many sorts. The bees, cats, dogs, sheep, horses, oxen, chickens, turkeys, ducks, the wild animals, all were part of the circle we had going and all were needed. I am rather sad about how things are going out here today. Farms are disappearing even as jobs in industry have left. The man who taught us how to train and use oxen died, he was over 100 years old. The last few old farmers here who taught me how to farm here are all dead now. And there is virtually no one replacing them.
We have a weaver next door but the other shepherds are all gone. Including my sheep. Global trade killed that. And all the ancient skills are slipping away. I know how to use many Victorian tools for woodworking as well as farming including the old plows, augers, etc. But I won't be here forever, either. Will anyone listen to me if these skills were needed? It amused me to read in the book how people had to bargain for matches.
One can make fire without matches, of course. But that is yet another skill that is not being passed on. And here it is: the art of living is a huge variety of skills. Machines and civilization has ended the need for 99% of these skills but they are still important. And only a small handful of people are keeping these going.
Then there are really ancient skills. Here are some troops in Europe I trained in Medieval warfare techniques:
Here, I am putting on my steel armor. Fighting with swords, using spears, shooting the long bow, knife throwing. These are all very old skills that might prove useful some day. In Jim Kunstler's dystopia, the people capable of doing all this would rule the roost. And they would be the ones with lots of dogs, some cats and some very brazen draft animals. My horse, Sparky, for example, is very aggressive. He likes to pick fights.
I love dystopian books because I have lived in the universe these writers try to imagine. The fear of our neighbors is quite real. We really don't trust them, I fear. Yet the only people to survive in the future if we have this sort of world will be people who can bring order to disorder, who can control their property and protect it. I hope Jim can get to know real dogs who work, not think of them as 'pets.' They are not at all, if raised right. Like children.
[Review of "Five Short Blasts" by Pete Murphy. See original for text.]
Like Kunstler and myself, he is worried about us paving over Paradise. Paving over good farmlands. The impact on nature, on the countryside as the US spreads out extravagantly, worries him. I can't complain too much, my mountain was virgin when I built here. At no time has any house stood anywhere near where mine is today. We all use earth's resources. And there are more and more humans every day. And eventually we will reach a limit, this is inevitable. Sooner than later, I might add.
If one wants to debate this topic, this book is a good source for information. Read it and weep, I guess. But read it.
And Kunstler's book is a good read, too. I just wish he had some good, brave dogs in it. Like my dear Cleo who departed this earth 6 years ago. Or the noble Chip and Dale with their wide horns. But I quibble here. These are worthy books. We have much to brood about. But then, it is thawing outside today and is about time to clean out Sparky's stall. And fix the wall he broke during the blizzard, trying to turn around without going outside. Silly horse.