James Howard Kunstler: Making my garden grow (in the face of the meltdown)
Unless your mobile home was blown all over the county on opening day of the tornado season, this must seem like an interlude of reassuring normality in the world’s convulsive wendings. The IED known as Greece has not quite yet exploded, loud as all the graveyard whistling that emanates from Europe might be. Even the invocation of a “credit event” by the notorious ISDA has seen a first-stage payout of a few mere billions – though you’ve got to believe that this is some kind of stage-managed dumb-show designed to conceal the fact that the whole credit default swap racket is a network of frauds.
Where I live, in the uppermost Hudson Valley, the peace and tranquility of the moment is overlaid by sweet spring zephyrs arriving about a month early. I hope that doesn’t portend weeks on end of 90-degree summer heat, but I have the consolation of not being in Texas, where that would be more like three straight months of 100-degree-plus heat. It must get tedious running in and out of the a.c.
My gardening schemes which fermented all winter are finally going into action. Yesterday, I banged together the first two of ten raised beds arrayed geometrically in a forty-eight foot square foot formal vegetable and herb garden. I’ve done it before on a smaller scale at a different house in a different time when nobody except the clinically paranoid expected the collapse of civilization. I’m going to put in a not-so-formal patch of corn-squash-and beans outside of that in the manner of the people who lived here a thousand years ago, really just to see how it works, and I may also plant a monoculture patch of potatoes elsewhere.
The “back forty” awaits the arrival of twenty fruit trees – mixed apple, pear, cherry, plus blueberry, raspberry and current shrubs – and two blight-resistant American chestnuts (not absolutely guaranteed blight-free). A mighty effort has been made over recent decades by valiant arborists to restore the American chestnut. It was this tree (Castanea dentate) which made the forests east of the Mississippi so prolific with game in the time before clocks arrived in North America.
My back forty used to be huge lawn, with an above-the-ground pool decorating the middle of it. The pool is gone, thank you Jeezus. I’ll start with this set of fruit trees and see how they take to the soil here, and if they get going well I’ll get twenty more next year. It could add up to a really immense amount of fruit for one household. There’s always cider….
Altogether I have about an acre-and-a-quarter of already clear land to experiment with. The rest is woodlot. The woods will require a lot of grooming and brush-hogging to get decades of “trash” out: rampant honeysuckle, Virginia creeper, box elder. There’s a lot of good hardwood in there otherwise, and I built a saw-jack set up to cut stove lengths. There’s enough in there to be self-replenishing with careful management. The house I bought last fall has a fireplace with a stove insert. The builder insulated the shit out of the place. The chain saw is off in the shop getting its battered old chain replaced. I have to learn how to sharpen the damn thing now. Cutting firewood is where you get a really vivid sense of the power embodied in gasoline. A couple of gallons will get next season’s supplementary supply laid in.In the past, and probably, in the future, this is a job that would be nearly impossible to do by yourself.
These days, except for highway repair and oil-drilling, there are few outdoor activities that require a gang of men working together. In the years ahead, household composition is going to change hugely for many reasons. It’s unusual these days to have a lot of children – considering population overshoot, it seems crazy to promote that – but people with something to offer in the way of skills and labor may have to join forces just to get the necessary day’s work done together. I’m sure that will have its consolations, even if it means you don’t get to have a 3,500 square foot house to yourself.
The deer-fence installer just submitted his estimate. It was an eye-opener, but it has to be done and it’s a one-time thing. I could have done it myself in a half-assed way with plastic netting but this is not a time for half-assed measures. My place is like a petting zoo, there are so many deer on and around it. Left open, they would ravage anything I grow like locusts. And they had the easiest winter in memory – no snow on the ground all January and February, something nobody around here has seen before. Here it is March and they are still looking plump and ready to pop out lots of healthy babies.
So I have to put a fence up around the garden and orchard part of the property, with gates into the woodlots. The fence has to be eight feet high because the white-tailed deer is a mighty leaper. It’s going to look a little like Jurassic Park.
Of course, if the USA gets into really deep socio-political shit, it’s easy to imagine the entire deer-herd of Washington County getting exterminated inside a couple of years by hungry, desperate jackers. The people I play fiddle with on Tuesday night, many of them boomer-age hippie homesteaders and master gardeners, remember thirty years ago when you hardly ever saw a deer. We could easily get to that point again when times get hard.
About a week ago, I stopped on a country road to take a leak. I stepped into the woods for a minute and then, stepping out, was horrified to see dozens of ticks crawling on my pants legs. I took the otherwise unused snow-brush to them. The really weird part is that it was only thirty degrees that day. Yet they were already active and right lively. This place is now the epicenter of the eastern Lyme Disease epidemic. I went to a party not long ago where at least fifteen people were currently in treatment, or had been more than once before, for Lyme. Some just couldn’t get rid of it. It is a wicked-ass illness, very difficult to get out of your system, and debilitating in myriad ways. It, too, was unknown around here thirty years ago.
I honestly don’t know if my own little homesteading experiment at the edge of this sweet-but-beat little village is going to work out. I’m pretty confident about growing vegetables because I’ve done it successfully before, even in recent years when I was a renter sitting out the housing bubble. But it gives you something psychologically nourishing to do while the turbo-industrial world wends its way into the long emergency. Pictures to come on my website as the season wends where it will.