Whack! The soil, such as it is, gives way to my mattock.
What if I’m right? What if the industrial age comes to its overdue close, taking the love of my life with it? What if she’s stuck in Tucson, unwilling or unable to escape when the taps run dry at the gas stations and, more importantly, in her rental house?
Whack! Twenty more blows, and I’ve got a row of soil — scientists would call it “unsorted alluvium” — loosened and ready for my long-handled shovel. Eight feet wide and six inches deep, it’s more cobble than soil, with occasional thin layers of gravel, clay, and easy-digging sand.
It’s got to end some time, even if it’s a few years off. The next case of $120 oil, assuming we get there before the industrial economy falls into the abyss, will be brutal for an already over-stretched American consumer. Banks are falling like dominoes on a mule cart over the bumpy terrain of declining energy supplies. When will the lights go out? When will I lose all communication with my brother, sister, and parents?
Whack! Fifty more rows give way. I take a break to gulp water and breathe the country air. I hear the cackle of a chicken as she brags about laying an egg. The ducks laugh, at her and me. They always laugh, the perfect audience for my twisted sense of humor.
My dad spent his early years in a house without running water or electricity, and it looks like he’ll survive long enough to see the circle complete itself. When he was a kid, his mother declared she’d had enough of the uncivilized life. She was leaving, that very day. She wondered if anybody was going with her. They all went, of course, her husband and their pack of kids. My dad met my mom in college and they dated twice before deciding to get married. They were mere children when they had three children. Fifty-some years later, they’re still in good shape, as sharp as ever. Life-long educators, they instilled in me the work ethic and curiosity that saved me from the oppression of ending up as poor as they were, when they were raising three youngsters in a backwoods, redneck logging town nearly two hours’ drive from the nearest real grocery store.
Whack! The mattock bounces off a massive rock. I scratch and claw through leather gloves pocked with holes, finally tossing it onto a small pile of cobble I’ve remembered to create beside the large mounds of soil mixed with gravel and cobble.
I was a year ahead of my sister in school, and we attended the same high schools and then the same college. We’ve always been close, and our weekend talks on the telephone remind me of the many late-night conversations that led to our similar life paths and offbeat philosophies. During an intramural flag-football game, my brother and I went out of our way to beat up on her college-freshman boyfriend, for no apparent reason except familial protection. Later, she found it funny. At the time, not so much.
Whack! I’m too old for the empire to fall. My bruised and battered body hasn’t taken this kind of physical punishment since two-a-day football practices in high school.
I played cornerback behind my brother’s defensive end every game of my sophomore season in high school. We taunted the opposing quarterback to run the ball our way. He rarely did. On the offensive side of the ball, I still remember the two passes I threw to my brother during his senior season. I never expected to relieve the star quarterback during the regular season, but he hit a rough spot so I played a single series. I called my brother’s number, of course. And I drilled him between the numbers, only to see him drop the ball. So I called his number again, and this time he made the catch and the first down. We’re still close, and we share the academic life, albeit in disparate institutions.
Whack! I’ve developed four rows of calluses on my hands. I can hardly bend my fingers each morning after a pained-wracked night of little sleep.
What if I’m wrong? It’s happened a few thousand times before. What if I quit my easy, over-paid job only to see the empire last another decade? I can’t bear the thought of missing out on daily interactions with students for ten years. And what if we keep killing every species and culture on the planet, and I have to read the news every day for a decade? I can’t bear that thought, either. What if we keep the industrial machine running long enough to destroy habitat for humans within a generation, as it seems we will? Surely the southwestern desert will be among the most miserable locations to face the demise of our species. What if I continue to see my wife of more than a quarter century only a couple days each month? Is that any way to keep a marriage alive?
Whack! My back aches, as it has for months. My imperialist doctor says I shouldn’t work so hard. But this is my job now, preparing for our post-carbon future. Or maybe it’s just my future, sans spouse.
Another couple years would be great, from a personal perspective, but can the living planet handle it? Every day brings us closer to the edge of ecological collapse and runaway greenhouse. Here at the mud hut, we could use the time to figure out the garden and the goats. Not to mention seeing our families another time or two.
Am I that selfish? Am I willing to forgo habitat for all future human beings on the planet just so I can grow some potatoes?
Of course I am. I’m Homo industrialis, after all. I care about me, here, now. Hell with tomorrow, and all the tomorrows to come. And potatoes are damned good, as any Idahoan knows. I’m pretty certain the existential angst isn’t worth living through, anyway, for any thoughtful person. And why should I care about the thoughtless ones?
Whack! My arms and legs burn with every swing of the mattock. A sandhill crane, one of the first to arrive this year, trumpets in the distance. Although biologists don’t know why they’ve been arriving earlier every year, I’m betting they’re not bringing good news on the climate-change front.
I shouldn’t have sold our house in the suburbs, much less quit my easy job to prepare. My wife loved that house, and our life. I should have stuck it out with her, keeping my mouth shut and playing field biologist instead of social critic. Then, at least, we could die together. And she’d have been happy during these last four years. Me, too, at least compared to the emotional rollercoaster I’ve experienced as a result of the pain I’ve caused her.
Whack! Sweat saturates my clothing and even my gloves, staining my hands yellow. I can barely see through my sunglasses, the lenses filled with sweat pouring from my forehead. Not that this job requires any more visibility than brains.
I’m just not cut out for post-carbon living. I’m a career academic. What ever made me think I could live close to the land? It’s fine in theory. But in practice it’s a pain in the … well, every part of my body, which clearly is not too big to fail. Never mind the paucity of friends in my new community, most notably including my best friend for the last 28 years. I simply have neither the body nor the intellect to thrive here.
Whack! Best I keep whacking away. Thinking too much never did anybody any good. And where’d this self-indulgent crap come from, anyway? Onward, upward, through the self-induced fog.
Schopenhauer’s question continues to haunt: How to get through a life not worth living? Make it worth living? That hardly seems an option at this point, given the lose-lose scenario I’ve managed to create for myself, and her. Take the Hemingway out? That certainly wouldn’t help her. Not that I’d notice or, once I’ve left the planetary station, care.
Whack! Ah, self-indulgence. I’ll bet there was damned little of it before the age of fossil fools. I can’t imagine people, tribes, or societies would tolerate the self-absorption rampant in contemporary industrial humans.
A life of service was my answer when I served the empire. It was the answer inspired by the example of my parents, and followed by my siblings. It is the answer of my mentors and colleagues. It was easy to find, and apply, in my ivory-tower life. Whether I find it here, in time, remains to be seen.
Whack! A hundred rows or so, and the garden bed finally is hollowed out, ready for the hardware-cloth “basket” that lines the bottom and sides of the bed to protect the future garden from the present pocket gophers.
How will I serve this community? It’s filled with doomers, many of whom have been growing their own food and organizing their lives around imperial collapse for decades. How do I fit? Or do I?
The topic and title of this post were provided by Mike, my partner at the mud hut.