Peak Oil News: Deeper than a mud puddle

Monday, August 27, 2007

Deeper than a mud puddle

By Brandon Marshall

The following story is told from the point of view of a farmer living in an intentional community in a post-Peak Oil world several years from now. The details change as it continues to evolve in my mind, but in all its versions it sticks to one general assumption. The gap between energy demand and supply widens, and at some point in the future various aspects of our social and economic institutions begin to break down in earnest. Here is today’s version…

Before settling here several years ago, I was a bit of a floater. The casual observer might have seen an aimless wanderer but there was always a direction, always an encompassing method. That method was largely determined by my own vision of what energy descent might be like. I would move somewhere to take a job that I thought might teach me a useful trade, or attend a class or two at a local college, and move on when I had learned the fundamentals or saw the returns starting to diminish. That path has meant wearing many hats, but my farming hat, which is really many hats in itself, has always fit the best.

When I first started looking to settle somewhere, some places ranked higher on the list than others - arable land and rainfall versus desert, for example. But my search became based more on the “who” rather that the “where”. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was thinking in terms of my own personal “thrival”. Thrival is a word that has been added to the vernacular since we passed the Peak. Like a lot of the new language, it was probably being used locally somewhere to describe some aspect of social adaptation and then gradually spread. Thrival is sort of the opposite of rival. I’ve heard it described as cooperative survival. It sprang up about the same time the international intentional community and ecovillage movements were becoming popular.

The community here has grown into a small town in recent years. It is starting to reap the rewards from its early efforts at promoting diversity. The result has been a local, needs-based economy where people enjoy self-reliance with regard to food, water, and energy. We also enjoy a strong social network. This network has kept us flexible when the inevitable hiccups occur.

“Fingertipping” is one way that our social network is expressed. It’s almost like a salute. People stretch their arms out to their sides with their index fingers extended, which sort of represents each person’s world, and then they embrace. Each person has stepped into the other’s world. Auggie, a four-year-old in our cohousing group, is going through a fingertipping stage. He sets out every morning on his village circuit and folks stop whatever they’re doing when he shows up. If they’re arms are full when he gets there, he patiently waits with arms outstretched in anticipation. His morning lap has become something of a neighborhood ritual.

I guess that’s how we deal with the hiccups in the world. It’s kind of like riding a bicycle uphill. The community seems to have figured out the best gear to be in so the hiccups don’t feel like Himalayas. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still daily struggles, but we’re able to see which ones are important at the fingertip level and which ones can be let go of. The ones we tend to spend time on involve strengthening our relationships and getting everyone’s basic needs met. Maybe those are two versions of the same thing. I know our food system often falls in that category.

For instance, we started having trouble finding parts for the tractor several years ago. We had grown uncomfortably dependent on the contraption since the CSA had expanded and it was becoming a concern in the community. So when the cost for parts and fuel to keep it running became hard to justify there wasn’t much debate when someone suggested replacing it with a pair of draft horses. Now its engine is mounted to a generator for emergency power and anything that wasn’t stripped of parts for use elsewhere has taken up a life of leisure as a yard ornament. Often times the kids are out climbing all over it like a jungle gym. It’s ironic; some of the horse drawn equipment we now use was filling a similar role when we bartered for them.

Since getting that original team we have gone on to buy three more seasoned horses, and recently two young mares that are still a bit green. The neighbor down the road whom we affectionately call the “horse lady” is our source. Apparently she was a big-time corporate executive back in the old days. I’ve heard her talk about how she used to take a jet here and there, always on the go. Then one day she realized that she didn’t know who she was anymore. She quit her job - didn’t even give notice. I hear stuff like that happens a lot. She and her bunch come to all of our potlucks. They’re good cooks and always ready to eat.

Today several folks are working in our commons area. We grow the community’s broad-acre food and energy crops here. It is the same thing we were doing last week; it is the same thing we will be doing next week. The term “job security” comes to mind, but that is an old notion that has gone out of fashion with all that has happened in recent times.

I’m on the back of an old binder cutting oats with one of our Percheron mares, Naka, and one of our new Belgians. Naka and her sister, Ima, were our original team. We have been pairing them up with the new horses to help in training. Whenever the youngster is feeling a bit persnickety the old girl is there to help keep her in line. Naka is an old pro. She has done this more times than I can count. Mostly, I just try to stay out of the way and let her do her thing.

We’ll come along next with the threshers we converted to run on vegetable oil and finally bale with the horse powered baler that one of the former engineers in the community designed and put together for us. We have found that using a lot of this equipment is more of an art than a science and keeping it up and running is a full time job. Fortunately, there are several mechanically inclined folks living here that are always coming up with new inventions or ways to make things work better. One of them just installed a horse-powered line shaft to run our mill and seed press. Another is working on adapting it to some old wind generator parts for charging batteries to run our shop lighting. I think a lot of these technical types have rediscovered their creative sides after living here for a while.

The community has been busy this week with visitors. Someone brought word of gas shortages in this place or that - same old, same old. There isn’t much time to dwell as gardens are in full swing and the village has several projects going on. Our visitor flow is usually high this time of year but every year it seems to decrease a little as it gets harder for people to get here, both from the shortages and the ever deteriorating roads. Most are anxious to get hands-on experience and we have no problem finding a place for them to help out. One of the folks visiting is an old friend and has quite a bit of experience driving horses. With her help we are getting a lot done. I haven't seen her in a long time and I pull the team along side to let the horses rest and do some catching up.

“How was the ride up?” I ask facetiously. I haven’t traveled in a while but have heard stories about the state of things.

She looks at me with a grin and replies, “It was… deeper than a mud puddle.”

We have a good laugh. She knows the phrase has a dual meaning here. Local folks sort of morphed its meaning over the years to describe the strong relationships we have developed. Interdependency is a word that comes to mind. But that’s not how the phrase was born.

The phrase originated back when maintenance on the state highway systems first began to falter during the RISE program. After the first serious post-Peak economic hiccup, the government developed several new programs. One of them was RISE. RISE stands for Regional Initiatives via Sponsored Enterprise. The idea was that the states knew best how to improve their local economies so the federal government would provide block grants with the understanding that the responsibility for regions within state boundaries now fell squarely at the state level. In reality, it was a way for the government to cut funding to states in order to attend to its own fiscal dysfunction.

Already overburdened state governments ended up funneling the grant money to their higher profile programs and decreased funding for infrastructure in areas that were considered “non-contributors” economically. This mostly meant rural areas and depopulated urban centers. Unless you lived in a place experiencing some measure of economic stability, or near a work camp or military base, you had probably felt the effects of being “razed”. This program quickly earned a new title: Regions Isolated by a Stopped Economy.

The transportation work camps began focusing on interstate highways and the corridors connecting Canada and Mexico. Most state highways and virtually all county roads went without. People in rural areas began to classify roads by how deep the resulting potholes, washes, and gullies were. If a route had been labeled “deeper than a mud puddle”, you were taking a chance traveling at speed on it. The danger wasn’t the average pothole, but the “abyss” that might lie around the next turn.

The phrase quickly spread to describe several aspects of society that might once have been considered safe and reliable but had grown questionable, dangerous, or nonexistent. Roads, bridges, air travel, law enforcement, food, water supplies; if these had earned the infamous “deeper than a muddle” reputation in an area, you could bet that people were trying to get out.

We are finishing up for the day and unhitching the girls when an older model motorcycle comes up the drive. It is pulling a small trailer loaded down with camping gear and gasoline containers. A man is driving and seated behind him is a woman. There is a small girl sandwiched between them. He seems in a hurry to get here and raises a big cloud of dust as they come up the dirt road leading to the barn. The young mare has never been approached by a motor vehicle traveling this fast. She tenses up in preparation to bolt so I reassure her with a calm but firm “Eaassssy”.

The motorcycle stops several yards short of us. The man turns to the woman and says something in a low voice before walking over to us. He could not be more than forty years-old but a chronic look of concern has wrinkled his face prematurely.

He politely introduces himself and his family and proceeds to give an animated account of his life. He describes how he was a teacher in an urban school district that had fallen victim to the RISE. After some anxious months looking for work he tells me how lucky he felt to find work as a contract educator for the work camp system. He traveled from place to place for a few years in this position, teaching whatever the system needed. Then the work camps began consolidating and he was informed that the contract program was being terminated and that he would have to become fulltime staff at one of the larger facilities if he wanted to stay in the system. So he reluctantly moved to a site a few hours from here about a year ago.

Several weeks ago he hears a rumor from a friend in the work camp’s security department. More consolidations are coming and this time unneeded staff will be unceremoniously absorbed into the work camp population. He doesn’t believe it at first, but then his friend shows him a message from the camp headquarters to the security office instructing them to begin suspending gate passes for selected staff. His friend tells him that his name is not on the first round of suspensions, but that he is a likely candidate for future rounds.

Desperation builds in the stranger’s voice as he begins to tell me about the lifestyle his family would have as part of the work camp’s population. He describes the open barracks-style housing in the camp shared by several hundred families, the loss of personal freedom and dignity his family would endure, and the difficulty in transferring out of the camp population once in it. After receiving the warning, he decides to take a couple of days off to look for another job.

He tells me that screening at the security gate is usually a technicality for staff members, but when he tries to leave the next day he is detained. Suddenly, the camp seems very interested in where he is going and when he will be coming back. He quickly makes up a story about visiting relatives for a few days and is finally allowed to leave. As he drives away from the camp he knows he and his family will not be returning.

At this point the man is near hyperventilation. He doesn’t think the work camp will bother to search for him but he has traded their car for the motorcycle and all the gas they can carry just in case. He has been on the road for a week looking for work. He returned to this area because he had friends in the next town but they have since moved. In an exasperated finish to his tale and with a fair amount of huffing and puffing, the gentleman, in a near shout, asks “How will I feed my family?!"

The younger mare does not appreciate the excitement and steps back, bobbing her head.

I turn to look at Naka who is not fazed by the behavior. She has been in the midst of many a person exclaiming that the sky is falling with all the associated hand waving and frantic body language. Naka is a wise old girl, always steady. She never runs back to the barn, even after a long day out in the field.

She looks at the man for a few seconds while chewing at her bit, and then glances over to the motorcycle where the woman still sits with the child in her lap. I see here ears kick forward as the child says something to her mother that is inaudible from where I stand. Her ears then tip slightly to the side and she gives a deep exhale. She gets a soft, almost mystical look in her eye and turns back to me. This is my cue.

I turn back toward the gentleman and ask, "Sir, what do you know about canning green beans?"


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