Month: October 2016 (page 1 of 2)

An Expected Chill: Part Two

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a story set in Portland, Oregon in the near future. You can read the first installment here. Also, for those who already read last week’s installment, note the alteration in title. I had a creative change of heart.


It didn’t take long for Linsey to fall into the rhythm of the work, stepping carefully through the tangled squash vines, hunting down their fruit—sometimes visible, sometimes hidden in the tumble of foliage—and cutting their thick stems from the vines. She pushed the plants away from the fruit after each cut, making sure she could see it for its later move out of the field. Taking her time, enjoying the meditation of it, she worked steady through the crop. The variety of the harvest cheered her: Butternut, Delicata, Spaghetti, Carnivale, Sweet Meat, Kabocha, Acorn, and so many more, including experimental varieties. She always struggled to settle on a reasonable number of varieties deep in the winter, when she found herself sorting through the special order seed catalogs from the small companies proliferating throughout the Northwest.

The public’s increasing, almost pathological demand for variety and heirloom revivals didn’t help her. As home gardens and small farms continued to boom, and more municipalities pursued urban farming policies to secure local food supplies, small seed companies focused on regional varieties and those tailored to a wide array of micro-climates began multiplying at a dizzying rate, spread by the technological failures and devastating public backlash against the corporate seed companies. Linsey had found it a blessing and a curse. On one hand, too many new ventures kept coming to market with weak seed that sometimes didn’t breed true, their owners hampered by lack of experience and knowledge. Yet a number of new breeders were pushing deep into genetic localization and increased resiliency to the wild swings in weather becoming more common as the global climate continued to spiral deeper into chaos and unpredictability. As a farmer and someone who, at a basic level, simply loved plants, she found the diversity exciting and always looked forward to long winter afternoons spent combing through seed catalogs and participating in the ritual discovery of new varieties. However, the small nagging always remained in the back of her head: this breakneck search for the next great seed was as much frantic safeguarding against the knife’s edge of too little to eat. Too many massive crop failures had unfolded over the proceeding years. Too many food riots haunted countries across the globe, including America. The last few years, she had been waiting for the next shoe to drop.

Of course, she had learned long ago that ignoring the tasks at hand while waiting for the next dark turn in America’s stumble down the world pecking order was a fool’s game. Too much good work needed to be done and, as she walked through the squash now—clipping and turning, admiring the fruit—the satisfaction of that work settled deep into her, providing some of the limited control over her life she still felt she had these days. Pride settled in, as well—her usual reaction to a good harvest. There was little more satisfying than seeing such an impressive spread of food and sustenance she knew came in large part from her own labor and skill. It made her feel powerful.

Katherine arrived as Linsey moved through the final row of squash, her rusted bike bouncing hard and fast along the pathway, coming in from the south the same as Linsey had earlier. She came to a quick stop, gravel scattering from beneath the bike’s tires. “Hey,” she said, breath heavy as she dismounted the bicycle and let it drop to the ground. Her first day on the job, Linsey had made clear to Katherine she was not to treat any of her tools or other equipment in a similar fashion, or she would risk her wrath and a quick bounce from the Sixth. Katherine told her not to worry, no problem, and she stayed true to that assurance from the first day. Numerous times Linsey had seen Katherine abuse her own belongings, but she always treated others’ with the utmost care. It made little sense to Linsey—her disregard for her own belongings—but sometimes that’s all the sense she could hope to make of Katherine. She loved her to death just the same.

As Linsey quickly clipped her way down the final row, Katherine swapped out her top shirt with her usual farm flannel, ragged and familiar, permanently stained with dirt and plant matter. “So it’s ready,” Katherine said, looking over the sea of squash vines, many of them now ragged and broken thanks to Linsey’s efforts.

“It’s ready,” Linsey said, clipping a final squash and straightening up at the end of the row, turning to appraise her work. “At least, I hope. I’ve got it all clipped.”

Turning back, she saw Katherine stretching and smiling, but with dark eyes that belied her expression. “So now we haul.”

“Now we haul,” Linsey agreed. “Let’s line them up along the edge here,” she said, motioning down at the three foot strip of grass between the squash beds and the gravel path. “Then we can go get the cart from Garrett and start getting them to storage.”

Katherine clapped, short and sharp, her usual enthusiastic start to work. But it felt empty to Linsey, a show of expected behavior rather than genuine enthusiasm.

“Let’s go,” Katherine said.

They went.

— ∞ —

Back and forth they walked, up and down the rows, filling their arms with squash large and small and bringing them to a gentle deposit on the grass by the side of the field. They worked quietly at first and nothing was odd about that. Katherine always worked quietly at first after an initial burst of enthusiasm upon arrival, moving fast and steady as though she wanted to accomplish a good chunk of the task at hand before daring to break the silence with conversation. Linsey never had figured out if it was a matter of ethic, a desire to come across as a good and hard worker, or just a natural internal rhythm of hers that demanded a bout of hard work before words could flow. It was her usual approach, though, so the silence didn’t feel out of the ordinary at first.

Linsey couldn’t help but watch her, though, as she gathered and moved the squash, stepping fast and graceful through the vines, showing an impressive ability to balance multiple large and misshapen fruit in her arms as she moved. Despite her fast work, something felt off with her—an unnecessary rigidness and intensity of focus. Normally, her quiet would not extend to lack of acknowledgment; she would still make the occasional non-leading comment or smile at inadvertent eye contact. But today she worked inside herself, it seemed, eyes often on the ground and not even the most passing of comment uttered.

She wondered if the city’s angry energy was getting to Katherine, too, the same as it had cut her own sleep short that morning. She hoped not; Katherine’s enthusiasm consistently heartened and helped carry her on days she struggled and she hated the thought of her being brought down by the stupidity and destructive lashings out around them.

Shrugging it off—Katherine would talk if she wanted to—she let her mind wander elsewhere as she moved the squash, back and forth, the rhythm of the work again settling into her. It didn’t wander far, though, before finding the familiar rut of the day before, tracing the outpouring of anger and frustration across the city and her own foreboding sense that the life she had so carefully cultivated over the past two years might be dangling above some unexpected cliff, at the mercy of—

“Jesse was there yesterday,” Katherine said.

Bent over and about to pick up a large Sweet Meat squash, Linsey looked up at Katherine, standing a few feet away and holding two Delicatas and staring at her intense, all of her struggling. She looked close to tears; she looked ready to throw the squash; she looked ready to drill herself down into the earth and not emerge for a very long time. For a moment, Linsey felt dumb, her mind working over the words and trying to make sense of them.

Then she understood. “Up north. You mean at the shooting?”

“The fucking murder,” she said, her voice straining, her head nodding.

“He was there?”

“He’s in jail. They won’t release him yet.”

“Shit,” Linsey said. She stepped through the squash, broad leaves hooking and giving against her feet, the vines snapping with only the smallest resistance. “Come here.” She motioned over toward the already-moved squash, the stretch of clear grass. “Come on.” Katherine moved, her head down, still stepping so damn careful. It doesn’t fucking matter, Linsey wanted to say, the squash already done, not important anyway. But she was so careful with the things that weren’t hers. She could never bear to hurt what wasn’t hers to hurt.

She grabbed Katherine, held her tight. The girl—then, anyway; a girl then—slipped her arms around her but didn’t cry. Still held. “Is he okay?” Linsey asked.

“Banged up,” she said, voice still tight, her chin on Linsey’s right shoulder. “I talked to him. Didn’t see him. I don’t know what they’re doing—they’re not releasing him. I want him out. He didn’t . . . he was just there, that’s all.”

“How close?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did he see?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did he—”

Linsey.” She pulled back, looked at her. “I don’t know.”

Linsey put a hand against the side of her head. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking past Katherine at the trees beyond, the lightened autumn sky. Turning leaves and green of pine needles. The traced outline of the natural world, always continuing on while the rest of them fought and tumbled in the background. “I’m sorry.”

— ∞ —

Word of the shooting came in confused flashes. No, first it came in the sirens, screaming everywhere. Linsey had been working the Sixth the day before, Katherine taking her usual Wednesday off. She had been in the squash then, too, walking and inspecting it and thinking, with the expected chill that night, that it would finally be ready for harvest the next day. It took her a moment to recognize the sirens, to actually hear them, and then they seemed all around her. Off somewhere else but coming from every direction. A lot of them, at least two different pitches. Police and ambulance for sure.

She didn’t usually hear so many, but otherwise she let it be. Sirens came and went in the city and, besides, she had work to do. They didn’t get too close, and that was good enough for her. No one at Links was injured. Nothing untoward had happened on one of the other holes. She kept inspecting the squash, then began turning a bed in anticipation of planting garlic, the seed in for both the Sixth and their home garden. It was one of her favorite tasks, flipping the beds and turning the soil with her digging fork. She lost herself in it.

It wasn’t until checking in with Garrett at the end of the day that he told her about the rumors flying, the online reports still as yet unverified. A shooting had taken place in the northern section of the city, at least two people dead. Supposedly it was private security hired by Helton that had committed the murders, a forced eviction of squatters that had spiraled out of control. Supposedly protesters hard shown up, a crowd gathering and quickly devolving into shouts and intimidation, a surge against the hired guns. Supposedly they shot indiscriminately; supposedly they were only protecting themselves. The police had arrived to a scene of madness. No one gave them advance notice of the eviction. No one really knew anything, except that the city was beginning to devolve into chaos and protests were breaking out in every quadrant, reports of rioting spreading throughout the city.

Linsey biked home fast at that point, eager to check in with Brett, her eyes sharp for riots. She saw none, but heard chatter and watched other bikers pass her fast, looking intent. Maybe it meant nothing, maybe everything. When she arrived home, he wasn’t there and she called Jack. He knew nothing except that Brett had worked the morning and then left. Cursing his lack of a phone—on board normally, but just wanting to talk with him—she waited. He straggled in hours later, exhausted and amped, his jittery edge telling her all she needed to know even before he spoke. He’d been marching and the police broke it up. He fumed at the murder and told her what he knew, which was little. She didn’t even know if it was murder, though Helton’s behavior had been skirting the edge for months now, them taking more of the law into their own hands with each passing week and every new house and apartment building they bought up, increasing their grip on the city.

“They were arresting people, but I kept ahead,” he said.

She stared at him, thinking so much. “I wish you had been here when I got home,” she said.

He watched her. “I couldn’t stay here, Linsey.”

“You couldn’t stay here for me?”

“I had to go out there. It wasn’t about you.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I figure.”

His face told her he didn’t think she was being fair. She didn’t know if she was or not, and the conversation devolved from there into frustration, into fear, until finally she just lay down and closed her eyes and gave up trying to put it all together in a way that made sense—him piecing together a meal in the kitchen and her waiting for him to come to her and for them to try again.


Want to read the rest of the story? Learn more here.

An Expected Chill: Part One

Editor’s Note: One of my intents with this blog has been to explore my own writing, including through works of deindustrial science fiction. For the past couple months, I have been mulling a particular near-future scenario based here in Portland, Oregon, with plans to include an eventual story set in this future in a coming issue of Into the Ruins. As I continue to work on that story, this vignette reared its head. It features the same characters as my coming tale, “No Home Without,” but is set about a year earlier in their lives, setting the stage for some of the turmoil to come.

I still plan to return to the “Closed System Economics” posts, but am not yet sure exactly which week that will be. The continuation of the story below will likely fill the next couple weeks here on Litterfall, though I always maintain the right to change my mind.

I hope you all enjoy.


Linsey woke hard into darkness. Lying on her back, she blinked up at the just visible ceiling, then shifted her attention to the soft outline of their bedroom window. Early. She guessed 5:30—earlier than she normally woke. Brett slept next to her, curled on his side and breathing easy and rhythmic, unperturbed by her sudden consciousness. Listening to him, she thought a moment about trying to return to sleep—join him in oblivion—but knew it was no use. The events from the day before already tugged at her, threatened to set her mind moving in directions she didn’t need. So, pushing back the covers, she slipped out of bed and moved soft through the room, quiet but not too quiet. Brett slept deep most of the time. She rarely woke him.

An expected chill pervaded the apartment, and she grabbed a pair of thick wool socks from one of the open drawers of their dresser as she passed. She put them on in the bathroom, along with a heavy robe, and then shuffled into the kitchen for her morning ritual: a small cup of coffee, not too weak but not strong, made from a small scoop of their precious grounds; a piece of bacon fried in a cast iron skillet, followed by two eggs and pan-fried toast; a small glass of goat milk. She had her routine down perfect. She finished the pour over coffee just as she pulled the eggs and toast from the skillet, sliding them onto her plate, taking it all to their small dining table.

Not even six yet, she sat relishing her first sips of coffee, and then cut into her eggs while reflecting on her early awakening. She would have liked it to be the cold morning or her anticipation for the day’s harvest, but knew neither of those things had awoken her. No, it came from the death and unrest the day before, and from the sickening anticipation of what might be to come. The city had started to break yesterday, frustrations pouring into the streets. She worried that flood would continue and start tearing apart her community and the modest life Brett and she had made over the past few years. She wanted to help piece it all back together, but knew she had no domain over the situation. It would run its course regardless.

Her small comfort that morning lay in thoughts of her winter squash crop and the wealth it represented. With the chill from the night before, the frost out on the grass, she felt certain it would be waiting for her this morning, touched finally by sweetness and ready for harvest. She didn’t know what else might be waiting, though, and that worried her.

— ∞ —

A half hour later, breakfast eaten and dishes washed, she knelt by the bed and snaked her arms around Brett, still sleeping, breaths still so heavy. He stirred as she kissed him on the cheek, then at the corner of his eye, and he smiled as he opened to the sight of her. “Hi,” he said, sleepy.

“Hi,” she said back.

“It’s early.”

“Yeah. Sorry, I wanted to say goodbye.”

“Don’t be sorry,” he said. He put a hand on her back, pressing light. “Squash today?”

“I think so. I’ll see how it feels, but it’s cold out there.” She hesitated. “You?”

“I’m gonna clear that bed for the garlic.” Now he hesitated, watching her, each of them listening to their unspoken words. “Jack said he may need help with the solar heater, the plumbing for it. I’ll check in with him. It’d be good to learn.” This dance—it made her sick, worry on top of apprehension, the layers suffocating her. “You have Katherine today?” he asked.

“She’ll be there,” Linsey said, adjusting herself back to see him better, bring his guarded face into better focus.

“Okay. I can come by and help get the squash in if you want.”

He glanced down a moment, away from her—somewhere else. “We can get it done,” she said. “Katherine’s fast—she’s a damn workhorse.” She paused. “You should go learn plumbing.”

He stared at her a moment—blinking slow, then touching the back of her neck, resting his hand there—and she thought of their conversation last night, of the people flooding into the streets. It amped him, she knew, made him want to burn. Made him want the struggle, which scared the hell out of her. “What do you think’s going to happen today?” he asked.

She sighed. “I don’t know, babe. I don’t know if I want to know. I just want to harvest and feel rich.”

He smiled at that. “Me, too.”

“You want that?”

“I want it for you.”

His hand felt hot on her neck. “You don’t want it for us?” she asked. “You want something else?”

He shook his head, and the silence stretched a moment while he stared lost at her. “I don’t believe you,” she said. “You always want something else.”

Pulling his hand away, taking a deep breath—she knew too well the ways he fell into himself, all the fights he fought in his head without her. He looked at the ceiling for a moment, then back at her. “I just want the world okay for us,” he said. “I . . . just want to do what’s right.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Well, I think gardening and plumbing and bringing in the squash is what’s right. It’s what needs to be done—for us, for other people, for this stupid city that’s trying to tear itself apart. That’s what we have to do, you know. We don’t get to throw our lives aside every time people get crazy. And we don’t have to tear ourselves apart just because they are.”

“I know,” he lied, looking away from her.

Silence again while she struggled to know what to say—how to close their divide before she left. But there was no reason she would know it any better now than she had in the past. She stood, bent down and kissed him quick. “Eat a good breakfast. Work. And just . . . ignore the bullshit outside, okay? I’m not saying forever, but . . . I can’t, okay? I just want you here for dinner. I want you to tell me about plumbing, and I want to tell you about squash, and I want us to have this place, okay? Have each other.” She hated her voice then, but knew nothing else to do.

“I know,” he said, watching her with so much he wouldn’t say. “Okay.”

“Fuck.” She stared at him. “I love you, and I wish you would—”

not be stupid.

“I know,” he said, sliding his hand over her calf, his tone an apology.

So often able to read her mind.

— ∞ —

Normally she would bike to the Sixth, but that morning she walked. She wanted the cold air and its clarity, to see where the frost was and wasn’t. She also wanted to listen and look and see if anything was yet happening in the city, or if the tension was still building behind closed doors and out of sight. Maybe more than all that, she wanted the rhythm of the walk and the way it allowed her to think, though her parting conversation left her doubtful of the utility of such time. Helpful thinking too often turned to harmful dwelling and she was already too at risk of that.

Pulling her heavy work coat tight around her, she walked at a brisk pace, eager for the warmth it would bring. The neighborhood spread quiet around her, the sky above still dark and only just starting to lighten, the stars beginning their fade into daylight banishment. Thanks to the city’s budget cuts, only the occasional street light burned. She walked in shadow and dark far more often than not. It made her somewhat nervous, but she still liked it—some small reminiscence of her times lived in rural areas. Plus, she wanted this small stretch of dark before twilight broke it into a new day. She wanted this moment of quiet and calm.

A number of houses were dark with slumber as she passed them. But a number of windows were lit, and she wondered in particular about the covered ones, about what was happening within. Were they making plans, plotting their anger? Or just getting ready for work as she had been shortly ago? Maybe eating breakfast and nothing more.

Doesn’t matter anyway, she thought. I’ve got my own crops to tend.

— ∞ —

The sun broke across the sky as she arrived at the Sixth, its orange glow heavy behind the tree line, altering the world’s colors. She approached her plot from the south, along a small gravel road—or more a path, really, not that much wider than the golf carts that used to run it. Her work spread out in front of her, an overgrown and in many places ragged tangle of a vegetable plot, nearly an acre, spread with a wide array of vegetables and herbs, perennials, bordered by young fruit trees, many of the plants already harvested and left broken apart on the ground, but a good number of fall and winter crops yet to provide meals across the city. She winced a little at the mess of it, admonishing herself for not being tidier, not having it as clean and presentable as, say, the Council might like. But then, the purpose of it was to feed people and make a living, not to beautify the city under the shallowest of definitions. The sheer amount of good food resting here was beauty enough.

She allowed an initial survey of the plants—a small, ritual refamiliarizing that settled her without fail—before making the trek to the Clubhouse to pick up supplies, check in and make her presence official. Garrett waited there as always, nodded, dutifully logged her and her supplies: clippers, gloves, two hori-horis, a couple hand hoes. They chatted for a few moments—skirting around the clashes from the day before, too aware of the complex conflicts of interest littered across the former golf course. The subject felt too fraught for such an early morning interaction; might as well play safe. She did ask him, though, if there had been any trouble the night before—a concern of hers.

“Nope,” he said, voice slow as always. “Or if so, they did it quiet and low key. No one’s complained yet.”

“How many are here?”

He smiled. “Just you.”

“Really? Not even Nikki?”

“Haven’t seen her.”

“You take a walk this morning?”

“Of course,” he said, shooting her a look. “I always do.”

“Sorry, I know. I just mean—it look okay?”

“Yep, sure does. I guess I’ll hear about it if it’s not, though.”

“I’m sure you will,” Linsey said, then gave him her goodbye as she headed back for her plot, carrying her basket of supplies, suddenly wanting to take a closer look just to be sure. In the first few years Links had been active, no one had yet to engage in any significant vandalism of any of the plots, despite the acrimony over the decision to transition the golf course. Even the early going had been bumpy but successful, the controversy giving way to glowing media accounts and a thriving, twice-weekly on-site market. Garret, a wealth of cameras, and a part time security guard turned out to be enough to patrol and keep stable the relatively open stretch of land within the city. Occasional thefts happened and kids sometimes acted their age—stomped a pumpkin, splattered a neighbor’s door with stolen tomatoes—but there seemed a surprising level of respect and pride for the farm throughout the city. Of course, the stiff penalties for damaging city property didn’t hurt and these days, as well, not many people looked askance at a solid source of food within city limits.

Still, the unrest the day before had been the worst to roil the city since Links had been christened and respect for city property hadn’t been particularly high the day before. She would hope that wouldn’t extend to urban farmers and the land they leased, but who was to say? Some thought they were too tied to the Council, too buddy-buddy with the people in ever-more-tentative power. She would have enjoyed a long, clarifying conversation with such people, though they would be even more distrustful of her than any of the other Links farmers.

On return to her plot and a slow walk through it—needed, anyway, so she could categorize and prioritize tasks—she found her worries unfounded. The crops appeared as healthy as the day before, aside from those the light frost had left bowed and blackened. The basil was officially finished, tomatoes gone, her already-faded summer crops finished off for good. She expected it, of course, and it was really the squash she gave the closest look to. And indeed, as hoped for, it appeared ready for harvest, with the slightest of small discolorations on the skin, the flesh inside undoubtedly sweetened by the touch of frost. It would be a good harvest. Now she just had to pull in the few thousand pounds of fruit that awaited her. She would need to check out a cart from Garrett.

Pulling her pocket watch, she saw that she had a good hour before Katherine would arrive. Taking a pair of clippers from the supply basket, she got to work, pushing aside her worries and wondering what the brightening day would bring: hoping for simple harvest but suspecting worse.


Continue reading An Expected Chill: Part Two  -or-  Want to read the full story? Learn more here.

Patience in an Emergency

Editor’s Note: The past week or two has been particularly challenging for me. I want to point in part at the election raging around us—those of us in America, anyway—as a source of those challenges, but it goes deeper than that. I think of late I’ve been struggling with my own perceptions of myself, my internal views, and a question of priorities and focus. The world outside me has rarely felt more troubled, and broader geopolitical and world events beyond this sickening election cycle have left me troubled and wary. I worry about my future and the future of the people I love. At the same time, I feel at a loss for the best way to react and question how to attempt to make my own tiny impact on the world in a way that both fits my ideals and sustains me.

As a result of all this—of my cluttered head, my selfish motivations, my short-sightedness, my fear, and a good number of other common and clichéd human failings—I have been far from my best and I’ve been hurtful. As a result, I see that I need some extra time for thought and reflection, and I need to take extra time for consideration of priorities. As a result, tonight I’m putting the Closed System Economics series of posts on hold and reposting an entry from my old blog, Of The Hands, which feels very relevant just now. It’s a bit fascinating to read it today, three years later, and to reflect on what it said about me back in 2013, what it still says about me today, and in what ways it no longer fully reflects who I am. It feels from much longer ago, but I am sometimes amazed at how much different my life is today than it was just a few years back.

If there is one piece of this, though, that feels unquestionably true to today, it’s the quote from Wendell Berry from which the title is taken. I think there is little question we are in an emergency today, and I fear it is going to get worse. Perhaps it is time for me to rededicate myself to figuring out just what I am going to do about it and how I am going to take my own small responsibility. I have felt too much anger of late and it’s made me anxious, made me jumpy, and worn me down. It’s time to return to a certain patience. I just have to make sure it’s an honest one.

I expect to be back next week with a new post. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this. And I wish all of you both patience and good work in the hard months ahead.

— Joel Caris, 10/17/2016


Patience in an Emergency
Originally published November 4th, 2013

I’ve always cared about justice and the proper way to live in the world. My specific beliefs around these ideals have changed and morphed over time, but they always have been a concern for me. I remember, as a child, calling McDonald’s to ask them to stop using styrofoam packaging after watching a 20/20 report with my parents. I remember, upon learning what it meant to be gay, being dumbfounded by why someone would care about, or become angry over, the gender composition of two lovers. As soon as I understood the concept of gay rights, I unabashedly supported them.

At the same time, though, I’ve never cared for conflict. I don’t like arguments. I prefer to get along with people. So while I have many strong beliefs (quite evident throughout this blog) my ability and willingness to rage against the world, and its people, has waxed and waned throughout the years. At my core, I want to get along, even when I disagree.

There have been many times, however, when I felt like I should not get along. I’ve written before about my history with political involvement, and that stretch of my life is one of the key moments when I felt compelled to rage. I immersed myself in a partisan worldview that encouraged anger and defiance, that turned concerns about the proper way to live in the world into a blood sport, a war, a desperate struggle with immense consequences. Within that paradigm, I felt the need to challenge my aversion to conflict and to instead embrace it as the only effective way to make the world a better place. I came to see hard lines as a necessity and I tried to fit myself into that worldview, hardening and raging, pushing against a world I too often saw as unjust. And as, time and time again, my ideals failed to be implemented, I despaired.

In “A Letter to Wendell Berry,” Wallace Stegner tells Berry that “The lives you write about are not lives that challenge or defy the universe, or despair of it, but lives that accept it and make the best of it and are in sober ways fulfilled.” That line strikes me, because it perfectly encapsulates so much of what I enjoy about Berry’s arguments. It’s not that he never rages against the world, or condemns it, but it’s that he accepts it, reminds us that we must ultimately bear it, and that he consistently recognizes and acknowledges his own role in the destruction and improper living. He is thoughtful, first and foremost. He tends not to let rage distort his view. He is considerate—in the archaic sense of engaging in long and constant thought—and iterates unflinching examinations of the world. Granted, they are of his particular view and thus are not truths for all, but they’re always honest and thoughtful, the product of extensive consideration.

I appreciate this approach. At my best and most honest, it’s my approach to the world. I’m not a rager, despite my occasional lapses into it. I have a very hard time hating people or maintaining anger. I want to like people. I want to engage with them, to be considerate, to find common ground. I don’t mean this as some sort of self-flattery; if anything, it often drifts into detrimental territory. But properly harnessed, I think it’s a powerful trait.

In my criticisms of the way we live as a society, I cannot often get away from considering my own role. It feels too dishonest. Yes, I get on my high horse and enjoy—perhaps too often—rousing bits of rhetorical flourish. But I always attempt to bring it back to my own behavior, my own thoughts, my own complicity and engagement. It’s the only way I see to make an honest difference in the world. I can’t help improve a destructive system if I can’t see my own role in it.

But it’s also more selfish than that. I’m not particularly happy raging against the world. When I tried to engage in politics, I consistently found myself worn down by it more often than not. I didn’t like the division. I didn’t like trying to force people’s hands, to push my way into their lives and try to get them to do something they didn’t want to do. I didn’t like making cold calls. I didn’t particularly like get-out-the-vote efforts. The scapegoating corroded me, made me anxious and frustrated, angry and brittle. The dominant politics of this country is not currently one of building and engaging community, but one of demonization and hatred, of the stoking of division for power, of simplified and binary thought patterns. It’s about identifying and eliminating the enemy, first and foremost, and any engagement of others to make the world better is too often incidental. A mere byproduct at best.

That’s not a path that sustains me. Nothing about my involvement in politics heartened and sustained me. It was a zero-sum game at best, and far too often a negative. It drained me of energy and constantly felt like a battle. I had to push myself to engage in behavior contradictory to my natural instincts. I did this because I thought it was necessary to make the world better—that this was the way to improve a society I so often found incoherent, painful and cruel. I punished myself with politics, and I told myself it was my duty to do so. It was the cost of being a good citizen.

Inevitably, I burned out on the process. I suspect the same constitution that made my engagement in politics so draining also guaranteed that I could not keep it up. I prefer to enjoy my life, and I’m not driven or self-disciplined enough to consistently and unendingly engage in behavior I don’t enjoy. But even as I drifted away from the sanctioned political realm, and even as I found farming and the fulfillment and sense of purpose that it provided me, I still could not entirely leave behind my sense of duty toward disruption.

For a brief time, Derrick Jensen’s argument that industrial civilization had to be dismantled—and similar arguments from others—captured my attention and imagination. My tendency to see the pain and destruction in the world opened me to the idea that I had a duty to do whatever I could to bring down industrial civilization and help limit its destruction of the world. I became at least somewhat sympathetic to the idea of sabotage and destruction for a greater good. Yet, again, my constitution wouldn’t allow it. I never seriously considered engaging in any destructive acts (let alone violence, which is utterly anathema to me) but I did briefly consider it a compelling and logical argument. I still consider it a fair argument to consider, but I have serious problems with it not only at ethical and moral levels, but at simple levels of efficacy and strategy.

The argument eventually lost its draw for me. I’m not a warrior. I rarely fight. I have little interest in machismo. I don’t like conflict, don’t thrive on competition, and I don’t like defeating people—even in approved ways. When I played basketball in my teens, I liked to play point guard. Not because I was short, but because I loved to pass. I far preferred passing over shooting. A good assist was poetry to me, and it still is. It’s one of my favorite aspects of basketball. I like cooperation. I like to make others happy. I want to work with people.

Much of current politics isn’t about working with people, but about defeating them. There may be some incidental cooperation in that process, but abstract victory is the primary goal. Ostensibly, it’s in service of making the world a better place, helping people, improving lives. But honestly, that never seems to happen, and still the thirst for victory continues. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people on the right and left justify something that a politician on their side has done even when it conflicts with their supposed core values. The desire to win is stronger than the desire to govern. It trumps ideals. It lays waste to all other priorities.

I couldn’t last in that environment. And so, I farm. I work to scale back my life. This is the reason I find the concept of voluntary poverty so compelling. It’s rooted in changing my own behavior. It’s rooted in dealing primarily with my own life, not others’. It’s not about competition. It’s not about imposition. It’s about changing and improving my own life, first and foremost, and it’s about then helping to change society via modeling and cooperation. The more I learn, the more I’m successful in scaling back, the more able I am to help others who are interested in my lifestyle do the same. The more I change my own life, the better I’m able to advocate through my writing here on this blog, through conversations with people out in the world, through a willingness to show others what I have learned and to tell them about the ways in which I’ve failed.

This is a model that actually works for me. It makes me happy and works in conjunction, in cooperation, with who I am at my core, with my own personal truth. And so it renews me. So I thrive in this behavior. So, even in its challenges, I seem to find joy and happiness. I’m more at peace and I feel like I actually am, in very small ways, helping to improve the world.

I’ve read and listened to and spoken so much rage in my life. Berry’s writing is a refreshing and rare change in the way that it deals in acceptance. In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Berry said that, “to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial,” but that “the situation [we’re] in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience.” Somehow, this feels far more possible and rewarding to me than raging against the world. A lot of terrible things are bound to happen and are already happening. I want to help limit those terrible things in whatever way I can. But I can only do that in trying to live well myself, not in fighting tooth and nail against the inevitable aspects of the future. Not in laying the blame for those inevitabilities at the feet of others in favor of myself.

Perhaps this is an escape as much as anything else. Perhaps part of my draw to this attitude is its ability to absolve me of certain hard choices. But it still feels more honest to me, and I know that it’s by far the more sustainable approach for me in particular. Rage doesn’t sustain me, but good work does. Digging in the dirt does. Bearing the future does, in its own strange way. Thus, I more and more these days deal in acceptance and adaptation, and hope that this path will lead me to good living and to poetic—if small—assists. I hope that it will lead me to a helpful patience. And I hope that it will open paths of cooperation for me, even as it closes paths of competition and defeat.

Closed System Economics: An Introduction

Back when I worked on different farms, I spent a good deal of time observing my working environments and considering the degree to which each farm I worked for was a closed or open system. I did this out of a curiosity to better understand what it would take to run any single farm as close to a closed system—as its own ecosytem, in other words—as possible. I would consider what inputs were coming in from outside of the farm itself, what was leaving, what was necessary to run the farm successfully, and where adjustments could be made. It was a good way to evaluate ideas of sustainability within a real world context and gain a better grasp on ecological concepts. Over time, I became adept at seeing the inflows and outflows, and could recognize just how many inputs were required to run even the small scale and supposedly sustainable farms for which I worked.

It’s a big jump from evaluating a small farm in such a way to evaluation an entire nation as such, but I believe a similar exercise has the potential to yield quite a bit of valuable insight into how we might run the American economy in a different way, to our individual and collective benefit. To do that, we need to evaluate our economy within the context of an ecological system, consider its functions within the light of ecological principles, and apply close scrutiny to its inputs, its outputs, its flows of energy and resources, its sustainability, and its overall health and function. We need to evaluate, as well, its organizing principles, and consider how those work with or oppose the organizing principles of a healthy ecosystem.

America in recent times has moved its organizing economic principles towards globalization and centralization. We have tossed open our economic borders and entered into a series of free trade agreements, in the process helping to create massive financial and trade organizations that work at the global level to regulate economic activity and to encourage centralization and corporatism. The results of this movement have been widespread and strikingly disruptive. Here in America, we have engaged our movement toward globalization by outsourcing many of our industries to other countries, increasing our reliance on foreign sources of energy and resources, replacing American labor with cheaper labor abroad, exploiting legal and illegal immigration to depress wages here in America, increasing our export of goods and services, and reorienting our industries that do still exist toward serving global markets rather than national or local ones. Abroad, we have utilized the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and other organizations and institutions—all backed implicitly by our military power—to create a massive global wealth pump that has systematically diverted wealth and resources away from other countries and toward the United States, creating our current scenario in which the less than 5% of the world’s population who lives here in America is able to consume about 20% of the world’s energy production and perhaps as much as a third of its physical resources and industrial products.

It’s not hard to recognize the fact that these organizing economic principles work in opposition to the principles of a healthy ecosystem. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that this global economic system has not created healthy systems (either at global or national levels) and has instead left a path of destitution, destruction, and death scattered across the world. As we have moved toward greater globalism, centralization, and corporatism, we have destroyed a massive amount of economic, cultural, and biological diversity. We have increased our reliance on fossil fuel energy and the use of both renewable and nonrenewable physical resources while simultaneously eliminating the ability of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world to make a decent living—not through shortage of work to be done, but through overreliance on fossil fuels and machines to do it. And as a result of the trend away from human labor and toward fossil fuel exploitation and mechanization, we have created extreme wealth inequality, concentrating the vast majority of the world’s resources into an ever smaller number of hands while destroying the economic livelihood of millions upon millions of human beings.

There is another potential insidious consequence lurking in these organizing principles, as well, and it’s one that is applicable to America specifically. In having put in place a series of global organizations and institutions designed to pump wealth out of countries across the globe and toward one country in particular, we run the risk of having that wealth pump reconfigured against us in the not-too-distant future should our imperial power continue to fail—which, by all current geopolitical indications, appears very likely indeed. While being on the receiving end of that wealth pump has proven far more detrimental than one might expect a flood of unearned resources to be, having that wealth pump leveled against us would certainly prove far more devastating—especially since we have so very far to fall due to our outsized modes of living.

In other words, the ideology of liberalized global trade that has so consumed the industrial world in general and America in particular in recent decades has proven a very significant net negative for this country, and it threatens to become an even greater and far more devastating mistake should we fail to reorient ourselves before our empire fully collapses.

The stark reality is that globalization has passed its point of diminishing returns and is now so deep into the realm of negative returns, it threatens to upend the entire system in a cascade of populist backlash. That could be a good thing, opening up a series of political ramifications that might serve to rebalance the world’s various economic systems in a way that creates greater health and wellbeing for a majority of the world’s population. However, it also runs the risk of straying into some very dangerous and vindictive territory, setting off a series of cascading consequences apalling in their cruelty. In consideration of those varying possibilities, I would like to propose here on Litterfall over the coming months a series of alternate organizing economic principles that I believe could have a series of positive effects, not just for the wellbeing of Americans (and likely the citizens of other industrialized nations, as well) but also for the ecological wellbeing of our planet. I may very well be wrong, but I do think we’re in the beginning stages of a populist political uprising that has at least the potential to install dramatically new ways of political and economic organizing, but getting these ideas in circulation is a critical first step toward actually implementing them at the political level.

Globalization and imperialism have failed Americans, plain and simple. While it has diverted a good chunk of the world’s wealth and resources away from other countries and towards the United States, it has done so by creating an open and imbalanced system of trade whose tendrils extend so far across the rest of the globe that we have lost all sight of them. Rather than creating a tight and efficient economic engine of prosperity, globalization and imperialism has created a ragged and incomprehensible system of wealth imbalance and stratification rife with abuse and corruption, and which is less in our control with each passing year. We Americans increasingly finds ourselves at the mercy of a behemoth that we cannot understand and that we actively rage against, even as it continues to siphon wealth from the rest of the world and into our own insatiable maw. Yet, rather than provide sustenance, it seems only to make us weaker, less healthy, and more distraught. This economic system that ultimately determines much of our individual and collective livings has morphed into a sickness that is reducing our resiliency, reducing our overall health and wellbeing, reducing our independence and ability for self-determination, and all while impoverishing much of the rest of the world and earning us well-deserved hostility and resentment.

Much as I believe this orientation toward an open and globalized economic system has proven disastrous for America in the long run, I too believe that a reorientation toward a closed system economy has the potential to provide multiple benefits and a cascade of positive outcomes. Granted, it will not solve all of our problems, it is not a single solution, and it too will eventually run into the hard reality of diminishing returns. But there is a lot of low hanging fruit of positive returns that could be plucked before that point, and I believe we would be foolish to ignore that reality.

So what is a closed system economy? It is an economy that attends first and foremost to activity within its own boundaries. Its organizing principles are multitude. It attempts to provide as many of its needed inputs as possible from within its boundaries, utilizing its own energy, resource, and labor bases in a sustainable and lasting manner. It produces for the population and markets found within its own borders and looks beyond its borders only once it has satisfied its needs at home. It protects its own industries and markets through strong borders, utilizing tariffs and other forms of economic protectionism as needed and controlling the cross-border flow of labor. It ensures the health of its system by maintaining a balance between different types of economic production, with a heavy focus on goods and services derived from the national resource base and a minimization of speculation and money-based economic activity so as to discourage economic imbalances. It further maintains the health of its system by discouraging significant wealth stratification and inequality. It resists unsustainable exploitation of its resources, particularly from external sources. It provides for its citizens before providing for others.

Of course, there is more to the health of an economy than just following a set of closed system organizing principles and I intend to write about other dimensions of our economic, political, and cultural challenges, as well, from the preservation of internal diversity to basic civil rights for all citizens to the healthy of the citizenry and on to other more specific but critical issues, such as effective and sustainable modes of transport. All of these are critical considerations that cannot be overlooked.

Would running such an economy be easy, let alone implementing it through the clenched fist of our current entrenched interests? No, I don’t imagine it would be. Running a sustainable small farm or an elegant household is not easy, either. It’s a heck of a lot of hard work and it requires constant attention, consideration, and thought. It can be tiring at times, exhausting even, and can feel overwhelming. It requires intelligence, flexibility, dedication, and the willingness to avoid cutting corners and easy “solutions.” If we’re being honest, I think most all of us would have to admit that that is not how we run this country now. We run it fast and loose and shoddy, with little close attention or consideration, and without an honest accounting of cost and benefit. So to run our economy well and to engage a much more closed system that is both healthy and elegant will require a massive amount of hard work and patience.

All of that said, though, running such an economy strikes me as still an easier task than constantly trying to stay ahead of a series of cascading problems by creating new series of cascading problems, all the while holding our breath that the entire fragile system doesn’t come down and wipe us out in one fell blow. Our problems are piling up, the consequences are compounding, and our bills are coming due. Rather than doubling down on a failing system that is immiserating a good chunk of our friends and neighbors, I propose that we take up the challenge of fighting for and then building and maintaining a different economy based on different organizing principles. And I propose we do it not only for our own economic wellbeing, but for the basic dignities of everyone within our borders. The populist backlash building here in America and throughout the industrialized world stems in large part, I believe, from the destructive economic policies and globalization efforts that have been pursued even as they have destroyed the lives of millions of people. Channeled into a reoriented economic system that provides meaningful work and as broad-based and beneficial economy as possible, including through a revitalized wage class and rural economies, this populist movement could provide incredibly beneficial. Ignored and dismissed with a sneering contempt and simplified claims of racism and xenophobia that fail to acknowledge real structural problems with our current economic approach and the very real devastation of largely ignored populations, and the rising populist backlash of our times could take some very dark turns. I do not want to see that happen, and I believe we can avoid it. But to do that, we’re going to have to take a very hard and very honest look at the ways we currently organize our economy, who is winning and losing, and how we can reorganize it to be more fair, more equitable, less intensive, and more sustainable. To do so will take a lot of hard work, but to not do so invites a host of awful consequences that I believe most all of us would rather avoid. Beginning next week, we’ll start taking a look at some of those alternative organizing principles and how they might make our current untenable situation a bit better.

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