Archive for the ‘Considerations of Death’ Category

Killing Animals   18 comments

When I was young, I killed a possum. It’s my earliest memory of killing an animal. That’s not surprising, as I don’t have many instances of killing animals to remember. I loved animals as a child. I still love animals. I grew up wanting to be a veterinarian, and while that doesn’t appeal to me nearly so much these days, I love the fact that I get to work with animals on a regular basis. Sheep, cows, chickens, pigs . . . I honestly enjoy being around them, feeding them, interacting with them—even when they go and muck me up, as they so often do.

But years ago, I killed a possum. Well, I think I did, anyway. I was somewhere around ten years old and I did it in service of another animal: our dog, Buster. He must have been chasing the possum, because it had clamped down hard on Buster’s lower lip and had no intention of letting go. Buster was in pain and  very unhappy about the situation. My older brother and I found the howling, snarling tangle in our back yard, at night, my flashlight illuminating the pained scene. My brother grabbed his pellet gun, a rifle loaded with pointed lead pellets. I put it against the side of the possum’s head. I didn’t want to kill the animal, but I didn’t know how else to get it off Buster. I loved animals; this was a big deal for me. But I’ve always had this background belief, too, that there are just things you sometimes have to do, and it felt in that moment like something I had to do. I can’t recall ever believing the world to truly be a clean and neat place, even if I’ve often wanted it to be so.

I pulled the trigger. I killed an animal.

In hindsight, maybe I didn’t. The possum let go of Buster and, in my memory, it’s confirmed as dead. But looking back, I wonder if the little air rifle really would have killed the creature, even from a point blank head shot. Or maybe I wounded it but didn’t kill it. Hopefully not; I’d rather not the possum have died slow and painful from a messy infection. At this point, it’s long settled. And in a way, it doesn’t necessarily matter if I’m remembering the event correctly. What I remember is the echo, and it’s the echo that shapes my thoughts today. It’s the echo of that first killing that frames what I have to say today.

— ∞ —

I can’t recall any vivid killing of other animals in the years that followed. The only real exception is that I went fishing a few times and, in my success, killed a handful of fish. But killing fish has never bothered me that much; I certainly recognize them as living creatures, but their alienness—that lack of mammality—render them less sympathetic for me. I feel a slight regret at taking them out of their world, ending their life, but not a significant one. Not in a way that particularly resonates, except in one particular example that I still need to write about one of these future days. (Stay tuned.)

At the age of sixteen, I became a vegetarian. I was influenced by others around me at the time, but it also felt right. And a couple strange visions preceded the decision. Who am I to argue with visions? Regardless of where they came from, the message seemed clear enough to me and I felt I should heed it. My vegetarian status stuck for twelve years, relatively easily, and then it left. I suppose I debated the decision a bit, but looking back, it seemed to happen as easily as the initial decision to quit eating meat. No visions preceded it this time—just some reading and reflection. But, again, my needed course of action seemed clear.

That decision arose from the beginnings of a shift in my perspective on death. I began to see a greater complexity around the moral question of killing other creatures. I think I also began to have a better understanding of how much death I inflicted anyway, whether or not I ate meat—and even within the act of not eating meat. (Grains, beans, fake meat—there’s death in these, too, of plants and often wild animals and, of course, innumerable creatures at a much smaller scale.) But I still thought mostly of the visible, of the animals I would eat or not, and I grew sympathetic to the idea that the way these animals were raised and slaughtered was more important than whether they were raised or slaughter. I thought, if they were raised well and in natural environments, if they were respected and considered, if the farmers who raised them did it with care and consideration, then that was what mattered most. All creatures die. All of us die. Death began to seem to me secondary. What led up to the death? How was the life?

— ∞ —

I’ve twice now participated in a chicken slaughter at the farm down the road. Most recently, about a month and a half ago. I killed chickens. I killed ducks. The ducks were a touch more challenging—they’re cuter. That might sound flip, but it’s true. I can’t think of any other reason I should have felt worse killing the ducks than the chickens, except perhaps because I like ducks a bit more. I’m pretty certain it’s because they’re cuter.

I didn’t want to go the first time. I did, but I didn’t. I felt it was an experience I needed, but the idea of actually killing the chickens unnerved me. I went anyway, and—this may sound odd to some of my readers—I loved the experience. The killing quickly became easy. I don’t mean light, or inconsequential, but easy. We all started laughing, joking, breaking apart the stress. It felt communal and shared. Intense and elemental.

The second time, this year, was not as good. Perhaps the vibe was different owing to the different people involved, or maybe the heightened stress of my first time created a release and subsequent high that I didn’t get this time. Still, I enjoyed the process and it seemed almost natural, simple. This time I focused more on the cleaning and gutting of the chickens. I didn’t do that at all my first year and wanted to get some experience with that, so I would feel capable of completing the entire process on my own. And while I’m no expert at this point, I do think now that I could go out, slaughter and clean a chicken without too much trouble. That’s satisfying.

It’s interesting, though, how quickly I went from being unnerved to . . . well, maybe not cavalier about the process, but okay with it. Okay with the entire situation. Satisfied to have gained a valuable skill. Just one more task.

— ∞ —

In a blog post from early in 2012, The Myth of the Machine, John Michael Greer wrote about philosopher Martin Buber’s concept of “I-It” and “I-Thou” relationships. In Greer’s summary, “I-It” relationships are “those interactions in which the individual can simply deal with other things as objects,” while “I-Thou” relationships are “those in which he or she must deal with other beings as subjects with their own inner lives and their own capacities for interpretation and choice.” According to Greer, the relationships that humans engage in (with all manner of other humans, creatures, items and objects) fall along a continuum between these two points.

It’s in these concepts of relationship and interaction that I have started to see my work with animals. Animals are not objects; they’re creatures, “subjects with their own inner lives,” in Greer’s words. They make decisions, have personalities, react to my behavior and the behavior of other animals and humans. They have desires and fears, wants and needs. I don’t know exactly what it is to be them, to be in their minds, or if the inner expression of their desires and fears are at all similar to our own, but they are there. You can see it in their behavior. Hell, sometimes I see it in their eyes.

I particularly remember one moment.

It was brief and small, this moment. I was at one of the farms I work for, outside, in the cold and wet winter, standing in the muck of sheep and cows up by the barns. One of the ewes was heading out for the field, starting to pass me. Brian—one of the farm’s owners and, also, blind—wanted me to grab and hold onto the ewe so he could inspect her. I can’t remember why; maybe he wanted to check her udder, or maybe something else. But I was to hold onto her so he could do his work and so I grabbed at her before she could get past me and out into the fields.

She didn’t want to be grabbed. She didn’t want to be held. She wanted out on the grass. And so as I attempted to grab her, digging my fingers into her thick fleece, she sped up, pulled away, steeled herself. I held tighter and tried to gain my footing. She pulled harder, bucked a bit, started to run forward. I half ran, half grabbed, and in that moment she was not a creature, not a being, just an object and an impediment to me doing what I needed to do. “I-Thou” turned to “I-It,” if only for the briefest moment. And then she fell. I pushed. I don’t know exactly how it all happened and I certainly did not intend to knock her over, but our balance and my grabbing and pulling and pushing and her pulling all conspired to knock her over, right onto her side, deep in the muck, legs flinging up a moment into the air and her head twisting toward me, eyes looking up at me while I looked down at her. Locking eyes with her, her gaze was one of betrayed. One of hurt.

I might be the one putting that in her eyes. I don’t know. Maybe she was just annoyed, or confused, or frightened. But in that moment, I saw betrayal in her eyes, and I felt terrible. It wasn’t even that big a deal. She ended up in the muck, knocked over, and I’m sure that was not pleasant. But, so far as I know, I didn’t injure her. And she got back to her feet and continued out to the pasture. The day commenced. Brian’s inspection would have to wait.

But that moment sticks with me. I felt terrible. And upon understanding the concept of “I-It” and “I-Thou,” I began to understand why I felt terrible. In that moment, when I wanted her to do something that she didn’t want to do, she became an object to me rather than a creature. I inadvertently harmed her—even if it was a small harm, and even if accidental—and it came out of my frustration and my inability, in that brief frustration, to continue to treat her as a creature rather than as an object.

These are the moments that stay with me. These are the moments that echo.

— ∞ —

Recently, at another farm I work for, the local butcher came out with their mobile slaughtering unit to butcher three lambs and a ewe. The lambs were ready for customers and scheduled. The ewe was a different matter. Something happened to her. Her back two legs stopped working. We didn’t know why. She was older, and maybe the ram had too vigorously taken after her. Maybe something else happened, perhaps internally. Maybe a stroke. It’s tough to say; you can’t grill them about their symptoms. Regardless, she couldn’t walk. She could only sit upright, her front two legs propped on the ground and holding her front half up, her back end sitting. It was odd and sad.

So the farm owners scheduled her for slaughter. The day the butcher came out, two of us lifted her and carried her outside. We set her down and she sat there, front legs propped in front of her, head up, looking around. She couldn’t move. She just sat there, out of necessity. And then the worker quietly said, “Goodbye, girl,” and shot her in the head. She toppled over.

I’ve driven lambs to the slaughter, delivered them to the place of their death. This was the first one I actually saw killed. It was hard. I’ll admit that. Far harder than the chickens, or the ducks. Even considering the fact that I wasn’t the one killing her.

But throughout the process, she remained thou to me. And, so far as I could tell, she fit into that category, to some degree or another, for all people involved. The man who shot her did it . . . casually, I suppose you might say. But not cruelly or dismissively. He had plenty of experience—this was a common action for him—but I didn’t get the sense he didn’t recognize that it mattered.

That’s the key for me these days. Sometimes I kill animals, and sometimes I’m involved in the process of killing animals. That’s okay with me. But I don’t want to lose the thou. I don’t want to forget that these are creatures. I don’t want to turn them into objects, into its. I don’t want them to become to me nothing more than impediments or frustrations. I don’t think killing animals is inherently wrong, but I do think that consistently doing it thoughtlessly and carelessly is dangerous. That’s not a path I want to walk.

— ∞ —

Killing that possum echos and resonates. Those first chickens and ducks—I think I’ll remember that forever. And I don’t imagine I’ll ever lose the image of that ewe being shot in the head—the slight jerk, the settling limpness, the topple. But I feel worse about that ewe I accidentally shoved over into the muck. It doesn’t seem to make much objective sense, except that the transition to object is the sense. If they die a thou, and the death is sensical, then I can be okay with it. If it matters, if the context fits, I can be okay with it. It’s when they die an it, when they’ve been stripped of their creatureliness, that I can hardly abide it. That sort of death I have a hard time seeing as anything other than a betrayal, and that’s the path I want to avoid taking.

A New Year’s Plan: Worshipping the Earth   15 comments

I’ve always enjoyed New Year’s Eve and the ensuing New Year’s Day. The midnight celebrations of the new year strike me as somewhat magical moments, with a fresh year stretched out before me and all its promises of bad habits eliminated, mistakes corrected, good habits established, a fresh sense of proper living beckoning. I’m a sucker for this arbitrary moment so embraced by our culture. I feel as though I should transition that moment of renewal to the Winter Solstice—to synchronize personal and natural transitions—but New Year’s Eve was always the celebration in my life growing up and so that tradition still has its hold upon me.

Sometimes I make resolutions and sometimes I don’t. But I never fail to attempt to regroup in the early days of January. I begin a new year of reading with a new reading list. I think about the bad habits I want to leave behind and the productive habits I want to establish. I take stock of the ways I’ve gone astray from my life goals and look to recenter and refocus myself. This year is no exception.

In fact, this year offers even more of an opportunity for a fresh start than normal. On January 1st, I took up a new residence. For the first time in over two years, I’m not living on a farm. This isn’t as drastic a change as it might seem, though. I continue to work the same two farm hand jobs that I’ve been working for the last year and my move was only about a mile down the road from where I was before. My life is changing, but it’s not a complete overhaul.

I moved to a new place, about a mile down the road. This is the view out my bedroom window, looking out on the North Fork of the Nehalem River. As you can see, we had a dusting of snow this morning.

I moved to a new place, about a mile down the road. This is the view out my bedroom window, looking out on the North Fork of the Nehalem River. As you can see, we had a dusting of snow this morning.

I’ve moved in with a couple, Anthony and Victoria, living in their house on nine acres along the North Fork of the Nehalem River. I have a decent sized room, my own bathroom, and a walk in closet. The house is a manufactured home that’s been altered and retrofitted. Anthony is an architect who focuses on sustainable design, so this home has been updated to at least somewhat take advantage of solar energy. It’s very well insulated. A number of windows were added to let in natural light and a few solar tubes were installed in the bathrooms for daytime lighting. The home is outfitted with a solar hot water heater which assists the electric water heater. It also is equipped with a highly efficient Sun Frost refrigerator. A wood stove sits in the living room and provides much of the heating during the winter. The furnace rarely turns on.

There is a large gardening space, as well, a green house, a compost system, and a wood-fired sauna that sees occasional use. A stream cuts through the property on its way down the hill to the river, though the drinking water comes from a well. This is perhaps the worst aspect of living here: the water has a strong sulfur taste and smell. After living on two farms with incredible water from above ground creeks, I was spoiled. The water doesn’t too much bother me, though. If that’s the worst part of being here, then I can hardly complain.

Over the last few months of 2012, I slipped into bad habits. I was distracted, spending too much time on the internet, and had allowed my living space to devolve to the point of messiness that it left me unmotivated to engage in productive activities. During the summer, my lovely roommates Kayleigh and Lily kept me socially engaged and my garden—in addition to my work, of course—kept me physically busy with productive tasks. Once winter rolled around, the roommates left, and my garden died back, I took all that extra time available to me and sunk it into bad habits of distraction. I wasn’t cleaning up after myself regularly and would far too often choose the distraction of the internet and movies over good work.

This was my own fault, the result of allowing bad habits to take over. One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m very susceptible to patterns and habits. The bad ones put me into a negative feedback loop and the good ones put me into a positive feedback loop. But my self control is something that I’m still working on and leaves much to be desired; even when I know I’m engaging in bad habits and understand what I need to do to transition myself to productive work, I too often don’t do it. I allow myself to fall into distraction even though it depresses me and reduces my quality of life.

This happens most often when I spend a lot of time alone. At my previous place, I was alone more often than not the last few months. The farm owners also live on the property and I still was working, so it wasn’t a constant solitude, but the farm owners live in a separate house and we didn’t spend significant amounts of time together. The other social outlets in the area largely clear out in the winter. There are a good number of people around in the summer but far less in the winter, and many of those who do stay here through the winter time are people in town whom I haven’t made friends with.

Much of my socializing, in fact, has been happening in Portland, where I’ve been dating a woman now for a couple months. She’s fantastic and has made my life quite a bit better, but she’s 80 miles away. She’s not integrated into my day-to-day life. I go into town to see her, have a grand time, feel good about life, then I come back here to the coast and to a certain amount of solitude and my bad habits. It’s been unsustainable and it’s knocked me off the path I’ve been talking about here at this blog, upon which I place such high value.

Another angle of the view out my bedroom window.

Another angle of the view out my bedroom window.

I believe it’s important that I be able to change bad habits and unproductive patterns without having to make large physical changes in my life, such as moving to a new location. One of the downfalls of our modern society, I believe, is something of which Wendell Berry has written of extensively: the migratory nature of our culture. Many of us here in America have an expansionary frame of mind stemming out of the westward migration of the past and the availability of cheap energy and resources. As such, we feel we can use up a place because there’s always somewhere new and fresh to move to and begin anew. Sometimes this is conscious activity, sometimes not. Cautious and thoughtful husbandry, within this frame of mind, is not required. But, of course, this is a destructive and false belief and one that contributes to many of the ways in which we live poorly and destructively. And so I fight to eliminate this way of thinking from myself and to reorient myself toward the ideal of staying in place and of caring properly for my home.

Yet, in recent years, I have moved continuously. In the last four years, I’ve lived in six places, including my new residence. This has been the result of multiple farm internships and of the way I’ve chosen to live my life in recent years, with far fewer resources. It means that my homes have often been temporary, either of necessity (a set-period internship) or of likelihood (living situations that are expected to be temporary but with no set expiration date.) In some ways, this can be frustrating. In other ways, it’s one of the costs of how I want to live. But ultimately, I want to settle into a particular place, learn it well, care for it, and establish the patterns and habits that will allow me to live more sustainably, on less, with a small amount of money and resources and energy. Familiarity of place is one of the most critical elements of such a way of living.

In my small defense, the last three places I’ve lived have been within a few miles of each other rather than spread across different geographical areas. I am closer to settling, and I would be happy to live in this area here on the north Oregon coast for the rest of my life. I like the community, I love the land, and I continuously feel blessed to now be making a living farming, outside of internships. As others might feel about landing a powerful and high-paying job, I feel about finding good farms to work on for a small but sustaining hourly wage: it is a grace. Here is home for now, and hopefully a good ways into the future.

But once again, I have moved, and I must admit that this move feels like a fresh start and an opportunity to limit my bad habits and reinstate good ones. I had fallen into a funk at my previous residence, through no fault of the place itself but only of my own shortcomings. This move has given me a psychological boost to changing my behavior. It’s a small condemnation of myself that I felt a need for such a physical move to make psychological and emotional changes, but it’s just the place where I’m at for the moment as a flawed human on this chaotically beautiful world. I’ll continue to work on making myself better, on gaining a greater control over my habits and patterns.

There is an element to my new home that is specific to this place, though, which is the people I now live with. I’ve only been here ten days, so there no doubt will be continual learning of how to live with my new roommates and continual adjustments for all of us, but I must say that it’s a joy to be living with people again after a few months of residentiary solitude. Particularly in the winter, I think it’s important for me to be a part of daily community. I’ve enjoyed sharing meals again, having casual evening conversation, having new perspectives and ideas introduced into my thought processes. Similarly, my roommates are older than me and are conservationists—they have designed habits of living rooted in an attempted sustainability and lighter living. They have established patterns and habits that support these ideals as well as a seemingly settled way of day-to-day living. This, I have to say, is a godsend for me at the moment.

As mentioned earlier, I have been scattered and at the mercy of my own bad habits of late. I haven’t been living particularly well, though I can’t say I’ve been living horribly, either. But I have been undisciplined and that lack of discipline has pushed me from my stated goals, which has been painful for me. Through their behaviors, Anthony and Victoria are reminding me of the value of good habits and patterns of living, and of how simple it can be to integrate tasks and ideals into my day-to-day life. They are reminding me how to live well, which is something I had half forgotten the last few months. That, too, is a basis for a fresh start—the modeling of good behavior in my small community of residence.

So 2013 is bringing a particularly fresh start for me this year. I have new residence in a beautiful and settled place, with good people providing good conversation, and who model excellent patterns of behavior for me. I am reminded of good ways of living and of the simplicity of it, given the right frame of mind and a deterrence from self-defeating thought patterns. Much as with the good work I have found, this is a grace.

With this fresh start, I have fresh goals. First of all, I plan to refocus on my reading and study this year. Last year, I only read 17 books. I imagine this will seem a lot to some people here and not a lot to others. For me, it’s a small amount. I normally read closer to 50 books in a year and I like that level of reading. I plan to get back to it in 2013, assuming I don’t run myself too ragged in the summer (though much of my reading takes place during the year’s shoulders, anyway.) Second of all, I plan to get back into various homesteading projects. I haven’t made butter in a number of months; I want to resume that habit. I have some cabbage in the mudroom that will make some fine sauerkraut, as well as providing fresh eating. Fermented ginger carrots would be excellent, as well. I’ve been meaning to make my own enzyme cleaner for months. I finally am going to do that. I’ll attempt to bake a homemade loaf of sandwich bread that will reduce or eliminate my desire to keep buying Gabriel’s bread, a Portland bakery whose sandwich bread I adore. I haven’t made ginger ale in a long time—add it to the list. Homemade pasta on the simple, hand-powered pasta machine I received for Christmas over a year ago? Absolutely, it’s time to give it a try.

When I step away from the computer and engage in a productive activity in the home, I feel infinitely better than if I had just spent that time continuing to stare at a health-sapping screen. And yet, the screen beckons me constantly. It’s a weakness, the amount of time I give to it doing unproductive things. Turning it off and engaging myself in the kitchen, rediscovering the earth through my food, reading a good book or watching the birds on the back porch, considering the world, writing a letter to a friend, taking a bit of time to listen to good music and watch the flames in the wood stove—all this brings me a happiness the screen often can’t. And so, in this new year, I am recommitting myself to stepping away from the screen and putting my time and effort into quality activities, into connection and good health and happiness. I’ve noted this quote before, but Peter Berg once relayed these words of a woman from Mexico City: “The kitchen is the place where you worship the earth.” I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment and, further, think screens are often where we lose touch with the earth—one of the primary places where we learn to degrade the earth. I want to worship the earth instead, which means more time in the kitchen and less time on the internet.

That said, I am keeping my commitment—sporadic as it’s been of late—to this blog. There is still much I want to say and much conversation I want to have with all of you, those who take the time to read my thoughts. I know I’ve been largely absent for many months now and that I’ve made false promises in recent times. All I’ll say at this point is that I intend to write more regularly here going forward. I don’t yet know how regularly that will be, but I enjoy writing for this blog quite a bit when I actually sit down and do it and I want to resume that habit in the new year. The screen is not so bad in this regard.

I expect I’ll continue to add to The Household Economy as I recommit myself to kitchen projects and other homesteading activities. I also intend to write more entries in the Encounters series. I have a number of encounters I still want to write about. The How To Be Poor series on voluntary poverty is a different beast. I have not felt happy with it of late. It’s not that I don’t still have a commitment to voluntary poverty, but I don’t like what I attempted to do in that series of writings. I knew too little. I portrayed the series as one of instruction when, in reality, I am far more a student than a teacher when it comes to such a way of living. I tried to avoid being too preachy, but it came through anyway. It’s not that I don’t think I should write about voluntary poverty, it’s that I think I should have been writing about it in a different way, with more humility, more openness, and more a sense of imparting my own experiences rather than attempting to give people advice, which was one of the ideas behind the series. I made a mistake. I got ahead of myself. I do that sometimes.

I’ll have to think more about How To Be Poor before I decide what to do with that. I may just put it to bed with a final post in which I express some of the thoughts above. Or I may try to take it in a new direction. I’ll decide soon enough and then put up a new entry in the series. (I’m open to suggestions, too, if anyone wants to provide some feedback in the comments.) Whatever I do with it, though, expect thoughts on voluntary poverty and simple living to remain a part of this blog. After all, it’s a major component of what I’m trying to do with my life.

Finally, I may yet start the Considerations of Death series that I anticipated almost exactly a year ago. I still think about it at times and have a few entries in the mental queue that I would like to write at some point. I’ll leave it up to whim for the time being.

Yesterday, after doing a couple hours of work over at the farm I lived at until just a couple weeks ago, I wandered over to my garden there and began the long-neglected work of harvesting out some of the remaining food. I filled a 14-gallon plastic trash bag with multiple heads of cabbage, a few pounds of frost-sweetened carrots and parsnips, an oversize bunch of kale, and a few stray beets. I brought them home, cleaned them, ate a bit and packed the rest away in the fridge and the mud room. There is still a bounty of food out there: more carrots in the grounds, lots of parsnips, probably at least a hundred pounds of potatoes that I really need to retrieve. Still more kale, as well. It’s the remaining legacy of this summer’s good work, of the fulfillment of ideals and the result of good habits, of sustaining patterns. It was a reminder, as well, of the importance of working against distraction and malaise and of finding a constant renewal within an engagement of the earth. That can happen out in the garden, in the kitchen, at either of the two farms I work for, or even on the back porch, the back yard, in the fire in the wood stove, in all the abundant places in which the natural world asserts itself and recaptures my attention.

I intend to cultivate that capturing. I intend to worship the earth—and to let it revive me in this new year.

A New Year’s Plan: Death, Poverty and the Household Economy   16 comments

Predicting the Future

As we move into 2012, my plans both for my life and this blog are beginning to take better form. As I wrote in my post on returning home, I am settling into this area—Nehalem, on the northern Oregon coast—and, for the first time since 2009, staying in a particular place for a second year. While I’ll have to leave the farm I’m on now in a few months, I hope to simply move a short way down the road. Either way, I’ll be in the area. I have work on two local farms now and have a third farm offering a significant social scene, all three of which are nothing to be dismissed. I’m beginning to integrate into the community and finding that there are many opportunities here. It doesn’t hurt, either, that this is a particularly beautiful part of the northwest, with the sort of forested landscape that holds a great draw for me, along with quick access to incredible coastal environments.

So what specifically does the new year hold for myself and this blog? Well, as I’ve been making clear, I believe that we’re a country in decline. We’re in the early stages of peak energy and face a future in which fossil fuels—the primary fuels behind our economy, behind the entire way we run our country and other industrialized nations run theirs—become more expensive and more scarce, even as worldwide demand continues to grow. This will put significant pressure on our economy, our infrastructure, our political system, on the ways in which we organize our lives, on everything. You know how most of us in recent times have been slowly ground down under the pressure of a dysfunctional economic and political system, particularly since 2008? Well, we’re not in an anomaly. We’re experiencing what is now normal in this country. We are in decline—pretty much all industrialized nations are now, but America is particularly due to its empire status—and so we need to rework our expectations and rethink how we are going to live our lives.

This isn’t just about peak energy, either. This is also about ecological catastrophe, climate change, a collapsing financial system and, I would argue, a spiritual crisis. These are all interconnected and they all work together to make one hell of a mess. Governments and municipalities are going bankrupt, families are losing their purchasing power, ecosystems are exhibiting signs of incredible strain and we have a culture that is utterly failing us, focusing more on the Kardashians and fleeting memes than these very serious problems—or even thoughtful philosophy, affecting art or explorations of religion, spirituality and nature. We no longer know our way, and many of us know we’re lost.

The way we’ve come to expect life to be is not how it’s going to be in the future. Unfortunately, most are still living as if it is. But instead of an economic correction and a return to the comfortable living most Americans expect as something of a birthright, we’re going to, in general, become poorer every year, less materially rich and comfortable, and are going to find many of our foundational supports crumbling. It’s likely to be a rough road ahead. Yet, we can prepare for it and there’s no reason not to. We need to begin to learn how to be poor, and we need to begin now.

I realize that’s not going to be a popular sentiment and I’m sure there’s a contingent reading this who might think me a bit crazy. But I really do foresee this future, and there’s a lot of science and literature out there to support it. We are coming up against some hard ecological and physical limits as a species and there’s no getting around it. For all the talk of human ingenuity and endless progress, the reality is that human history is the story of cycles and patterns, of rising and falling civilizations, of a multitude of different ways of experiencing and living within the world, and this particular way that we’re in now—industrial civilization, for everyone reading this—is starting to come apart. We’ve had our time, and that time brought us a standard of living and a level of wealth unknown throughout the history of humanity. That makes us unique, yes—but no more unique than thousands of other civilizations and no less vulnerable, either. We’ve mistaken wealth and comfort for permanence and immortality. Wealth provides neither. It’s just a different mode of living. And it’s a mode of living that’s particularly ill-suited for our future.

The basis of our wealth and comfort—the burning of fossil fuels, which provide a level and accessibility of energy unlike anything else on this planet, and certainly unlike anything renewable, as well as the intensive exploitation of this planet’s resources—is coming to an end. It won’t all be gone in our lifetime, but we will certainly see shortages and most people alive today are going to be seeing the chaos that will result in those shortages. We’re seeing it already, in fact. The financial collapse of 2008 was a necessity, not an anomaly, and there are further corrections that will have to be had simply because we chose to address that collapse with attempts at propping up an unsustainable system. The lack of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina is another indication; a society in collapse simply doesn’t have the resources to rebuild itself after major disasters the way a society on the ascent does. The gridlocked political system and vapid culture are indications, too. The keystones in declining civilizations commonly cease to provide value to that civilization’s citizens. The collapse is not on its way. It’s here now. We’re already in it.

What’s important to note is that this collapse is very unlikely to turn into an apocalypse. It will happen gradually, which is the course that collapsing civilizations typically take. The exact details and timelines are unknown, but the full process of collapse generally takes a couple centuries. That means that we will not see it through its completion. We’ve had the fine luck of drawing the straw that put us at the beginning of the collapse. We get to deal with the initial stages, which are unlikely to be too fun, and it’s entirely possible that few people of consequence will ever acknowledge this collapse during our lifetime. Again, this is because it’s unlikely that there will ever be an event so undeniable and of such magnitude that everyone will point to it and say, “Aha! Here is the collapse.” Instead, it’s just going to be a slow grind. We’ll get shocks to the system, then stabilization and a period of reduced standards of living, and then another shock, another stabilization, and another period of yet-more-reduced standards of living. We had one of those shocks in 2008 and we’re living right now in the stabilized period with a lower standard of living. How quickly is unemployment recovering? How many people have fallen off the rolls? What’s the real unemployment rate? What’s the economy like now compared to the 90s?

So, then, our future holds further monetary and material impoverishment. It holds access to less energy and less resources. And it holds the promise that if we do not start to learn how to live under these new realities, we are going to be a lot worse off than if we do. You know how every few years we hear news stories about the hot new career track? It’s the career that forward-looking people are training for so that they’ll have a place in the economy of the future. Well, I’m here to tell you that the hot new career going forward is living in poverty. Learn to do it well and you’ll be in good shape. Ignore the coming reality and cling to the hope that all the same activities that have supported people over the last couple decades in this country will continue to support them and you’re likely to have a harsh time of it.

Living in Poverty

With that mindset, I’m planning on diving full bore into voluntary poverty in 2012. Not that I’m not already there to a large degree, but there’s plenty more I could do. Luckily, I have a couple sources of work lined up, so I’m not going into a completely income-less poverty. But my cash flow will be small anyway, far below the official poverty line in this country.

My plan for voluntary poverty has a few different elements to it. Aside from working at two farms, I plan to do some serious gardening this year. Coming off three seasons of veggie farming, this should be something I can do. But I have to admit I still don’t feel fully prepared to supply myself with homegrown vegetables all through the season. I expect I’ll do fine, but imagine it will be a bit more of a challenge than it should considering my experience. Still, this is the exact experience I really do need—a situation in which I’m fully in charge, which will burn quite a bit of knowledge and experience into my brain. When working for others, I too often do the work without paying full attention to the reasoning behind it. When I have to understand the reasoning—to figure out the work myself—I learn much better.

This gardening I’m hoping to do may actually take place on the property of one of the farms I’ll be working for. If this is the case, then I’ll be doing a work-trade with them for rent and gardening space. That would leave the other farm to provide most of my cash flow. However, with my rent and food taken care of, I won’t need a significant amount of money. This is another element of my poverty: getting out of the formal economy as much as possible and working within the informal economy of barter, work-trade and so on. This is fantastic preparation for the future because it’s the formal economy which will be failing us. The informal economy should be trucking along quite well. In fact, it should be growing quite a bit in the near future, and undoubtedly already is. This is a reality simply because as the formal economy fails to provide the living of more and more people, most of those people aren’t going to just lay down and die. They’re going to find some way to make ends meet. And if the formal economy isn’t capable or willing, then they’ll turn to the informal economy.

The Household Economy

Part of that informal economy is also the household economy. These are the things you do for yourself at home, using your own labor, rather than paying someone else to do them. Cooking, for instance, is a big part of the household economy. Various food processing you do at home is part of that economy, too. In 2011, I lacto-fermented a variety of veggies, made traditional pickles, made ginger ale and blackberry soda, made butter from cream, made mayonnaise, helped Ginger can tuna fresh off the boat, made pesto, made my own pizza dough, roasted and froze tomatoes and did many other things, all of which were part of the farm’s household economy.

As part of my household economy in 2012, I plan to regularize a series of homesteading activities. I don’t know for sure which ones it will be yet, but I suspect butter making will be there, as well as condiments, and I want to start making my own bread. I would love to begin making cheese and I’ll continue to brew sodas. I’ll certainly be preserving vegetables and probably canning some fish. I also would like to learn how to mend clothes. And I really would like to better learn beer brewing. I’ve brewed four times, once alone, and I have the basic process down. I need to figure out my equipment situation and then start brewing beer as a matter of course.

All of these activities will save me money by transferring the processing and packaging of food from a factory to my kitchen. By saving that money, I can live richer while being poorer. This is the point of learning how to live in poverty. It’s not about learning how to survive a cold night in a cardboard box in an alley—it’s about how to make your life as comfortable and rich as possible (in both a material and non-material sense) with very little money. Most of us will likely have access to less money in the future, or more money that will buy less due to inflation. The more we figure out how to make our lives without money—with thrift and cleverness and our own labor, as well as simple pleasures—the easier it will be to maintain comfort, happiness and a decent standard of living in the midst of a crumbling formal economy.

And if I should prove to be wrong about the economy, then you’re still in a better situation, with access to far more money now that you can use to do whatever you would most want to do with money, such as buy land or travel or start your own business.

Study, Meditation and Death

While I have plenty of physical plans, I also plan to focus on the mental and spiritual in the new year. Part of this will take the form of new avenues of study, with a likely focus on history in the broad sense, history in the very local sense, and my local ecology. Part of it will also be the consideration and possible engagement with a nature-based spiritual study. Part of it, as well, will be a meditation practice, likely involving quiet sits in and observation of the local land. All of these plans are still somewhat tentative and less planned out than what I wrote about above. They also are very personal and less applicable on a broad scale. As such, I won’t get into great detail here, though I’m sure these aspects of my new year will be commented upon and documented to some degree here on this blog.

However, I think consideration of a spiritual element is important for us, especially when dealing with collapse. I believe as a society, we’ve allowed ourselves to become too cut off from the natural world. As we live in an economy and society that is predicated on the use and destruction of the natural world, being cut off from that destruction is necessary for us to not be driven insane at the death constantly perpetrated around us. But as our material society begins to fall apart and offer far less material comforts, many of us are going to need some kind of spirituality to turn to. We won’t be able to fix these problems by buying a new tablet computer or paying someone to fix us a nice meal. New clothes or the smartest smart phone won’t make these issues go away and neither will trivial obsessions with celebrities or fleeting trends. We’ve elevated shopping and electronic distractions to the level of spirituality in this country; as those go away, we’ll need something else, both to provide comfort and to provide new myths for us to use in learning how to live well in a changed world.

With that in mind, I plan to explore some spiritual aspects on the blog this year. One of those will be a series of posts on death. Many of us need to think more about death, become more acquainted with it, and better accept it. Death is something we tend to shy away from in our society and I honestly think we’ll be forced to confront it more directly in the near future. As our economy and infrastructure continues to worsen, public health will, as well. The death rate will rise and we ourselves will be more likely to die earlier. We may be caught in one of the many coming shocks I spoke about earlier. This is life; we just as well could be killed tomorrow in a car crash or die of cancer brought on by the extreme toxicity of our environment, the horrid slop we call food. Death is around us now but as the forms we’re familiar with and have normalized begin to give way more to new forms—failing public health and the occasional dramatic catastrophe, for instance—we may find ourselves forced to confront death in a more direct way than is considered normal.

As such, we need to think about death. We need to better understand it and make our peace with it as much as we can. We need to actually acknowledge it. Therefore, I’ll be writing a series of posts that will recount experiences I’ve had with death. I don’t expect to make too many grand, sweeping statements about those experiences. I imagine I’ll let them more speak for themselves—will simply try to capture some of the emotions and sensations I’ve felt and pass them on to you, for your consideration. I find death somewhat unfathomable and fascinating and frightening. I suspect many have similar feelings about it. But the more we deal with and think about it, the less frightening it becomes and the more it begins to take the shape of something recognizable, of something that is both a necessary and profound part of what it is to be here on this earth.

I, finally, plan to focus more on the Encounters category on this site, which has been neglected up to this point. These posts will deal with encounters with the natural world and its inhabitants. We are a species on this planet, as every other living thing is. We are different, yes, but I don’t believe we are inherently better than other animals or plants, or even the dirt beneath our feet. I also believe we have quite a bit to learn from the other species we share this planet with. We have proved in recent times particularly destructive, particularly hubristic, particularly immature and particularly cruel. As we necessarily transition into a less dominant and more reciprocal relationship with this planet and our local ecosystems, we would do well to observe and learn from the other species around us. They have a lot to teach us, a lot to remind us of, and much joy to impart to us. We would be wise to receive it.

A Plan, Then

In conclusion, there are four main elements of my plan for Of The Hands in the new year.

  • How To Be Poor — This will include a variety of posts, from projects I’ve done that I think are helpful for living in voluntary poverty, to thoughts I have, to posts on certain subjects and themes, to ventings about the trials and tribulations of being poor. This won’t be as structured a category, but there should be much there and I think it will prove helpful for those who are interested.
  • The Household Economy — This will be a series of documentations of my household economic activity. There will also be some theory and philosophy, I imagine, but the focus will be on actual activities that constitute a part of my household economy.
  • Considerations of Death — This will be a series of posts detailing different experiences I’ve had with death, in an effort to better understand and become familiar with it. Most of these will simply be stories rather than long pontifications, but I imagine it will trace my own evolving attitudes and thoughts toward death, as well.
  • Encounters — This will be a documentation of encounters with other species. Much as with Considerations of Death, many of these will simply be small stories or anecdotes, but hopefully they will prove helpful. Where I think I’ve gathered some wisdom from another species, I’ll share it here.

In the coming days, I’ll be doing a bit of redesign of the site’s navigation bar, making these sections easily accessible. These are the main focuses I have for the blog going forward, but I don’t intend them to be the only writings I’ll share. If I ever get my camera working again, I’ll still put up the occasional photo posts and there will be other random thoughts and musings, documentations and stories. In fact, I plan to make one of my next posts a review of some of my reading in 2011.

I also, over the next week or two, will be putting up introductory posts for each of these categories. And, of course, I reserve the right to grow bored with these plans and change the blog’s direction. But for now, I like this path and am excited to delve more deeply into these topics. Here’s to hoping you’ll join me, or at least peer quizzically from the other side of the screen.

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