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Retrotopia: Learning Lessons


This is the thirteennth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator finishes up his trip to a tier one county, and starts to notice ways in which the Lakeland Republic has gone neither forwards nor backwards, but off on an angle all its own...


It must have been midnight, or close to it, when Pappas and I got back to the New Shaker gathering. The shooting went on until four in the afternoon; during a lull in the gunfire, a little after noon, we got into line outside a big olive-green tent in the middle of things, filed in, and left with glasses of beer and sausages and sauerkraut on big fresh-baked rolls. After the last drone was blown out of the air, people milled around while the judges conferred, and then it was time for trophies to be handed out—Maude Duesenberg, who I’d seen shooting earlier, squeaked out another win by a couple of points over a scruffy-looking kid from the mountain country off east. They shook hands, and he grinned; you could tell he was already thinking about getting ready for next year’s shoot. 

From there it turned into a big party, with plenty of food—somebody spent most of the day roasting a couple of pigs, just for starters—and no shortage of alcohol, either. Pappas and I ended up sipping moonshine around a fire with the guys from the 34th Infantry, who were already talking about what kind of stunt they were going to pull the following year. The ‘shine was pure enough that I’m honestly surprised that the whole lot of us weren’t lifted into the treetops by a sudden explosion, just from the vapors. As it was, I was tipsier than I usually let myself get by the time Pappas and I headed back to the jeep, and he was worse off than I was. Did you know a wheelchair can stagger? Trust me, I’ve seen it.

The next morning came too early, announced by the same overenthusiastic rooster as before. I got myself washed and dressed, and stumbled downstairs, to find Pappas looking as though he’d slept the clock around and was ready for anything. “I’m going to have to get the early train back,” he told me, “but Melanie says you want to see first tier up close, so she found someone to show you around Hicksville—a city councilwoman, I think.”

“If she can show me the nearest barber shop first,” I said, “I’d be happy.”

Pappas pulled out a pocket watch, glanced at it. “There’s one on Main Street,” he told me. “If we go now you’ll have time to take care of that before she shows up.”

That sounded like a good idea to me, so we said our goodbyes to the New Shakers and piled into the jeep for the ride back into town. This time there weren’t more than three or four wagons on the road that had been so crowded two days back; I gathered that most of the attendees were either sleeping off the consequences of the previous night or enjoying a leisurely morning. Fields and pastures eventually gave way to the outlying houses of the town, and then to the main street, which was paved—I hadn’t expected that—and lined on both sides with the sort of shops and city buildings you’d expected to see in an Old West history vid.

“City Hall’s there,” Pappas said as the jeep pulled up in front of the promised barber shop. He pointed to a three-story building of what looked like local stone half a block up the street. “Right next to the library. Ask for Ruth Mellencamp. All set? Hey, it was a pleasure.” We shook hands, I hauled my suitcase out of the jeep, and away it went.

I shook my head and went into the barbershop, and found a half dozen guys ahead of me in line. I’d expected that; what I didn’t expect is that four of them were singing. They had books open in their laps—copies of the same songbook, I gathered after a fast glance—and were belting out some song I didn’t know, and doing it in pretty fair harmony. I sat down in the nearest available chair, tucked my suitcase back under the seat, and all of a sudden had to fight down an impulse to laugh. You can run into a phrase hundreds of times and never think about what it actually means; I must have read at least that many references to “barbershop quartets” without realizing that that’s what guys did in barbershops while waiting for a shave, back in the days when there weren’t loudspeakers in the ceiling blaring pop music everywhere and veepads sitting in everyone’s lap to make up for any lack of distraction. In the Lakeland Republic, obviously, those days were back.

I’m pretty sure that if I’d picked up a copy of the songbook from the table in front and joined in, nobody would have blinked, and in fact that’s what happened with two of the next three guys to come into the barber shop. The odd thing was that the songs weren’t the sort of thing I dimly associated with barbershop quartets. I didn’t know most of them, but then I’ve got pretty specific musical tastes—jazz on the one hand, and opera on the other. Still, they were pretty good. One that stuck in my memory had a rock beat, and something in the chorus about a star man waiting in the sky. I made a note in my notebook to look it up once I got back home and could chase down the lyrics on the metanet.

It was a half hour or so later when I left the barbershop, feeling a lot less scruffy, and with another song’s chorus—“Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes”—ringing in my head. It wasn’t a bad bit of advice for the day I was about to have, for that matter.

There were sidewalks, too, and I walked up the one that led to City Hall, went in, and asked for Ruth Mellencamp. She turned out to be short, plump, gray-haired, and businesslike, the kind of woman that looks like somebody’s slightly batty granny until she starts talking and you realize there’s a mind like a steel trap behind the cozy facade. “Pleased to meet you,” she said, shaking my hand. “Yes, Ms. Berger called down from Toledo two days ago. It’s not often we get visitors from outside here in Hicksville, and I admit I’m curious to see what you’ll think of our little town.”

“So far,” I said, “I know that it has decent train service and you can get an excellent shave here.”

She chuckled. “Well, that’s certainly a good start! Why don’t you stash your suitcase here and we can have a look at the town.”

“I was a little surprised to see paved streets and sidewalks here,” I said as we left the building. “I thought you didn’t have those in a first tier county.”

“They weren’t paid for with tax money,” she said. “About ten years ago, some of the business people in town got together, organized a corporation, got a charter from the legislature for it, and used that to raise money to pave six streets downtown. A lot of people contributed, and not just people who live in town. So the streets got built, a fund was set aside to repair them, and the corporation wound up its affairs and closed down.”

“I imagine you know,” I said, “just how odd that sounds to someone from outside.”

“Of course.” She gestured down the street, and we turned. “The thing is, that’s what corporations were originally:  schemes for public betterment that were chartered by one of the old state governments for a fixed term, and allowed to raise money by stock sales for that reason alone. It wasn’t until clever lawyers twisted the laws out of shape that corporations got turned into imaginary persons with more rights and fewer responsibilities than the rest of us.”

I remembered what Vinny Patzek told me about corporations at the Toledo stock market. “So you went back to the older way of doing things.”

“Exactly. We do that a lot here.”

“I’ve gotten that impression,” I said dryly, and she chuckled again.

Hicksville was a farm town’s farm town, and you could tell. The biggest store in town was a feed-and-seed with big silos out back, next to a rail siding where freight cars could pull up to take on loads of grain, and the next biggest business was a whiskey distillery—“you won’t find a better bourbon in the Republic,” Mellencamp told me—which also had its own rail siding, and a loading dock stacked with cases of bottles ready to ship. Thinking about the tier system when I was in Toledo, I’d conjured up a picture of log cabins, dirt roads, and the kind of squalor you get in the poorer rural districts of the Atlantic Republic these days, but that’s not what I saw all around me in Hicksville. What I saw instead was a bustling, tolerably prosperous community that somehow got by without the technologies everyone outside took for granted.

We stopped in front of another big building of local stone, with HICKSVILLE SCHOOL carved over the door. “I don’t know whether you’re interested at all in our education system,” Mellencamp said.

“Actually, I am,” I told her. “Ours have problems; maybe I can pick up some useful ideas.” It was half a joke and half the understatement of the year—the public schools all over the Atlantic Republic are a disaster area, and the private schools charge more and more each year for an education that isn’t all that much better.

She beamed. “Maybe you can. We’re very proud of our school here.”

We went inside. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that there were no armed guards in flak jackets standing in the halls—I’d seen none of those elsewhere in the Republic—but it still rattled me. The place was clean and pleasant, without the prison look schools have back home. We went to the office, a little cubbyhole in front with a desk for the secretary and a bunch of filing cabinets, and Ellencamp introduced me; the secretary had me sign in, said something pleasant, and away we went.

“People come here all the time,” Mellencamp explained. “People moving to the area who want to check out our schools, parents and grandparents who have free time and want to volunteer, that sort of thing. It’s very much part of the community.”

There were eight classrooms, one for each of the eight grades taught there. We slipped into the back of the second grade classroom, nodded a greeting to the teacher, and sat in wooden chairs up against the back wall. The room was about as plain as could be, a simple square space with a blackboard and a teacher’s chair and desk up in front, a round clock over the door, four big windows letting in light on the left, a teacher’s desk and chair up front, and rows of seats for the students, each with its little half-desk curving forward from one arm. The teacher was maybe thirty, brown-skinned, with her hair in a flurry of braids tied back loosely behind her neck. A blonde girl of sixteen or so was standing next to the desk, reading a simple story aloud, and the students were following along in their textbooks.

I leaned over to Mellencamp. “Who’s she?” I whispered, meaning the girl who was reading.

“An apprentice,” she whispered back, and motioned to a boy around the same age, brown-haired and red-cheeked, who was going from student to student, and now and then squatting down and murmuring something or pointing to some bit in the book. “So’s that one.”

I gave her a startled look, but decided not to risk interrupting.

The story wound to an end, and then the teacher started asking questions about it to one student after another—not the kind of simple you’d expect to see in a test back home, either. It sank in after a moment that she was actually asking the kids for their thoughts about this or that part of the story. I put my hand on my chin. It struck me as a very odd way to run a lesson—wasn’t the point of schooling to make sure that everyone in the class came up with the right answer when it was called for? Not in the Lakeland Republic, I gathered.

The reading lesson ended at ten-thirty sharp—it took me a while to remember how to read a clock with hands, but I managed it—and once it was over, the students and both apprentices got up and trooped out the door in a ragged but tolerably well behaved line. Ruth Mellencamp got to her feet once the last of them were gone, gestured for me to follow, and went to the front of the room. “Angie,” she said, “this is Peter Carr, who’s visiting from outside. Mr. Carr, Angela McClintock.”

We shook hands, said the usual polite things. “How long do you have before the next class?” I asked.

The teacher gave me a blank look, then smiled the you-don’t-get-it smile I’d seen too often for my liking already. “They’ll be back in fifteen minutes, after morning recess.” It was my turn to wear a blank look, and her eyebrows went up. “Good heavens, you can’t expect second graders to sit still for an entire school day. Don’t the early grades have recesses where you’re from?”

“We probably should,” I allowed.

“You certainly should. If I kept them in much longer they’d be so restless wouldn’t absorb a thing I taught them. This way, fifteen minutes from now they’ll be ready to sit back down and pay attention to the next set of lessons.”

I nodded. “I was curious about the two young people who were helping you—apprentices?.” She nodded, beaming, and I went on: “They look a little young to have gotten a teaching degree already—will they go to college and get that after their apprenticeship?”

That got me the blank look again, and this time it wasn’t followed by the too-familiar smile. Ruth Mellencamp came to the rescue. “They used to send teachers to college before the war,” she said. “I gather they still do that outside.”

“And I gather you don’t do that here,” I said.

“Good heavens, no,” said the teacher. “Why would we? You don’t need a college degree to teach second graders how to read—just patience and a little bit of practice.”

“But I’m sure you teach them more than reading,” I objected.

“Yes, but the same thing’s true of all the three C’s,” she said.

“That’s what we call the curriculum,” Mellencamp added, seeing the blank look start to appear on my face. “Literacy, numeracy, naturacy—we call those the three C’s.”

I took that in. “So you teach them to read, and then—mathematics?”

“Literacy’s more than just reading,” McClintock said. “It’s the whole set of language skills—reading, grammar, spelling, logical reasoning, composition and speaking, so they can learn whatever interests them, think intelligently about it, and share what they find with other people. Numeracy’s the whole set of number skills—mathematics, sure, but also the trick of putting things in numerical terms and using math in the real world, so probability, statistics, everything you need to keep from being fooled or flummoxed by numbers.”

“Okay,” I said. “And—naturacy? I don’t even know the word.”

“The same principle,” said the teacher. “The whole set of natural science skills: learning how to observe, how to compare your observations to what’s already known or thought to be known, how to come up with hypotheses and figure out ways to test them—and also natural history, what living things you found here, how they interact with us, with their habitats, with other living things.”

“I suppose you don’t teach that in the schools back home,” said Mellencamp.

“There are college classes,” I said.

“Most of these kids will grow up to be farmers,” McClintock told me. “Most of those that don’t will be dealing with farmers and the farm economy here every day of their lives. How on Earth will they know how to do that if they don’t understand soil and weather and how plants grow?”

“Back before the war,” Mellencamp reminded her, “corporate farmers tried to do without that .”

“Yes, and look what happened.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure we’ve learned everything we should have from the mistakes that were made back then, but that’s one I think we got.”

I thought about that on the train that afternoon all the way back to Toledo.


In other fiction-related news, I’m delighted to announce that the first volume of my Lovecraftian epic fantasy The Weird of Hali is now available for preorder. The publisher, Miskatonic Books, is sensibly enough releasing the high-end hardback editions first. Those of my readers who are interested in a signed limited edition hardback of The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth can preorder it  here; those who want to go way over the top and order one of 26 copies of the fine edition, handsewn, traycased, and bound in the skins of beasts better left unnamed, can order it here. Beyond the wholesome attractions of writhing tentacles and eldritch horrors from three weeks before the dawn of time, this novel and its sequels deal with a good many of the core themes of The Archdruid Report, and should be of interest to many readers of this blog.

Photo credit: "FrankTupapark" by Gephart at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

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